Few topics spark as much debate or are the subject of vivid imagination as a survival knife. All that is needed to start a heated discussion is to state which knife is best. You are almost guaranteed to have several others tell you why your choice of knife is wrong and why. A discussion like this can devolve into a long and heated debate that seldom changes anyone’s opinion.
The image of someone surviving in the wild with only a knife is strong and vivid. One would have to be very skilled indeed to survive in such circumstances. Be that as it may, the fact that a knife is an important tool while in the wilderness is not a topic for debate. Knives can be used to chop and cut materials to build a shelter, construct snares, make field-expedient weapons, split firewood, cut cordage, clean fish and game, and any number of other camp tasks.
The first topic many think about when it comes to knives is what steel it IS made from. Important considerations for the type of steel you select for your knife are hardness, toughness, wear resistance, resistance to corrosion, and the ability to keep an edge. Choosing knife steel that meets your needs is a compromise. Unfortunately, there is no best knife steel. A blade can be very hard but could be difficult to sharpen and brittle. Some knife steel holds an excellent edge but is very suspectable to rust and corrosion in wet and damp conditions. The best solution is a compromise of the above qualities to suit the environment you will be using the knife in.
As with most things, quality costs money. Good steel is not cheap
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Numerous movies have the hero cast into a survival situation and using a sheath knife, usually a custom knife, to make a shelter, procure food, defend himself and overcome all odds to win the day. Realistically, what features are desirable in a sheath knife?
Absolutely, a full tang is an important feature in a knife. A full tang extends the full length of the grip of the knife. Full tang knives are inherently stronger. Choose a knife without a full tang and you increase the chance of the knife breaking while chopping or prying. This is one argument for a sheath knife over a folding knife. Folding knives are convenient and carry better, sheath knives are generally strong and can take more abuse.
Many also are of the opinion that full-tang knives are better balanced as the steel runs the whole length of the knife, making it easier to grip, hold and wield. Here are some of my favorites(both on Amazon.com):
- KaBar BK2FDE BK2 Becker Campanion FDE Handle Hard Black Sheath, Brown: Sports & Outdoors
- Ontario Rat-3 knife
A Word On Hollow Handles
As discussed above, a full tang is an important feature and adds a great deal of strength to a knife. Hollow handle knives make this impossible. While a small compartment in the handle of the knife where survival items such as matches, fishing line, hooks, or a small compass may be stored and come in handy, this design is much less strong. Therefore, to have a strong hollow handle knife usually means a custom knife, which is generally expensive. Cheap hollow-handled knives are usually junk.
Sheath knives are great, but you can always cruise around with a bowie knife on your belt. Folding knives can easily be slipped into or clipped on a pocket or carried discreetly in a small pouch on your belt. Because of this, they are more likely to be carried and on your person when you unexpectedly need them. These may be everyday tasks or maybe you are unexpectedly thrust into a survival situation.
Ease of carry is a primary feature of folding knives. Even large folders can be carried relatively discretely. This is a primary feature of folders. Unless in the woods most people will not have a sheath knife on their belt. Many carry some sort of folder as part of their everyday carry.
As a full tang is not possible with a folding knife by definition, folding knives generally are not as strong as a sheath knife and therefore cannot stand up to the same level of abuse as one. A folding knife has got to have a positive, rugged locking mechanism. If the knife will not lock open when needed, what good is it?
Here are some that I like (both on Amazon.com):
- Victorinox Swiss Army Huntsman Pocket Knife (Red): Folding Camping Knives: Sports & Outdoors
- Gerber LST Ultralight Knife, Fine Edge  : Gerber: Sports & Outdoors
Why Noy Both as Survival Knife?
When talking about sheath knives and folding knives, in my mind, it is not an either-or proposition. If I am spending any appreciable time in the wilderness, I’ll have both. Rather than picking a folder and a sheath knife that have matching capabilities, you may be better off choosing knives whose qualities complement each other. A large heavy fixed blade for chopping and a small, finer blade for cleaning small game is an examples of this. Folders are so small and relatively lightweight, that you may consider carrying two that feature different qualities.
PRO TIP: A serrated or saw blade is invaluable for making precision cuts while constructing snares.
Choosing An Edged Tool For Your Environment
Some edged tools are particularly suitable for a specific environment. Machetes are especially suited for jungles, primarily because the dense vegetation usually requires a lot of chopping. Hatchets are more suited to forested terrain and are very handy if you need to chop firewood. Pick the tool that fits your needs.
Two Schools of Thought: Custom or Keep it Simple Stupid?
When talking with experienced individuals about knives, two schools of thought emerge: Should I carry a custom knife or a quality mass-produced one?
As with most things, quality tools cost more money. Handmade, hand-fitted knives made of quality steel with exotic materials or hardwoods are almost functional art and almost without exception, very rugged and reliable tools. But if you ever lose one while making a river crossing or during an airborne operation, it will sting for a while.
There are very experienced outdoorsmen that love and use custom knives. Many I know would not consider voluntarily deploying without their chosen custom knife as part of their kit. There is also many that want a simple quality, yet less expensive mass-produced knife. One colleague who is very experienced and was a survival instructor for many years has frequently stated that he wants something that won’t break the bank and he can sharpen with a rock.
Yet another very experienced former colleague frequently stated he could do whatever he needed to do with a KISS Swiss Army Knife, a USMC Ka-Bar, and a machete. You would be hard-pressed to convince him he was wrong.
One point in favor of custom knives: If you’re in the middle of nowhere and your mass-produced knife breaks and you cannot procure another, you’re screwed. The odds of this happening with a custom knife are smaller. You are equally out of luck if you lose either type of knife in the outback, so make sure your knife comes with a quality sheath that carries your knife securely.
All of the above is something to think about when you are choosing what type of edge tool you are taking with you on your next adventure. There are no really right or wrong answers, but rather needs, preferences and budgets. Make the right choices for you. Good luck out there.
And here is our other post about choosing the right survival knife.