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How to Choose a Survival Knife

Choosing a “Survival” Knife By: Kevin Estela Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education

survival knife is an edged tool used to better the chances of an individual or group in a long-term emergency situation. Emergency blades are edged tools meant for short-term scenarios when time may be of the essence such as a shroud cutter for a parachutist, a rescue hook for the EMT or a blunt tip river knife for the paddler. This article features the process of selecting a survival blade. In doing so, the user must consider realistic conditions and ask logical questions to derive the optimal selection. Afterall, in a survival situation, you can’t call for a substitution, ask for a do over or call a mulligan. You need to make the right selection or you may not live to make another. No one can plan for all emergencies but certain consideration, preparation and training can better an individual’s chances in living through a crisis. One consideration vital to survival is the acquisition of an edged tool. A true survivor knows the utility of a blade and understands its value in the outdoors. With this in mind, the true survivor should be prepared with at least 1 good quality survival knife but preferably 2 or more carried in different locations on or around the body. If a person has no legal prohibition to carrying a blade, he/she should never be without one. Even if one cannot carry a blade, edged tools can be made and certain everyday objects can be fashioned into serviceable edges in a short time. The survivor should always be aware of “edges” around him/her even if they don’t appear as such in their current form. For the purpose of this article, emergency blades such as broken glasses, aluminum can lids, para-cord friction saws and halved CD’s will not be the focus. Instead, the emphasis will be on choosing the right long-term survival blade. Once the mindset of blade importance is understood, it should become apparent it is easier to plan ahead than react without in an emergency or survival situation. Emergency blades are very specific and are generally sold as, seat belt cutters, EMT shears, and anything with “self-defense” in the name. Survival knives may be marketed with the word “survival” in their name but they are likely cashing in on the marketability of that word. A true survival knife is one that stands up to the scrutiny of logical questions asked of its attributes given where it will be used. It will also be harder to spot as clever designs and marketing hype cloud good judgment. These questions go beyond the usual “What is the best steel”, “what is the best grind” and “what is the best blade style”. The questions asked are largely determined by the user and certain variables such as skill, strength and dexterity will make the questions vary. As a general guide a series of questions used to determine the appropriateness of a survival knife are provided.

1. Will the knife be used frequently? This question is important if you consider the knife’s role in a survival situation. It may be stored in a kit that will experience change in temperature, moisture and potentially cause it to rust. This may help the user decide to go with stainless or carbon steel. Most outdoorsmen prefer carbon steel for ease of sharpening but if a knife is never used, time alone will not dull its edge. If the knife is used frequently, the clear choice is carbon steel as it takes an edge easily and field maintenance is not a problem. Also exposed by this question is the grip design. An aggressive textured grip is fine for a knife used sparingly but causes hot spots and blisters on a knife used regularly.

2. Where will the knife be used? Think of the environment. If the knife is around moisture (particularly salt water), another hash mark should be made in the column of stainless steel. If it is used in the woods but cared for with oil and other rust inhibitors, carbon will hold up well once a patina forms. This question regarding location also will help determine the length of the blade. Perhaps you are in an environment with dense green vegetation. This would indicate a longer blade is needed for trail clearing. Think of the indigenous tribes of the jungles that do everything with a blade. If the primary location is a hardwood forest, a small belt knife will do most of the work as firewood is generally found on the ground and there isn’t a dire need to chop large trees to obtain it. If you do need to chop wood, your blade should be heavy enough to cut through hard wood.This question reveals the need to carry more than one blade. A small personal use blade and a larger chopping tool at the very least.

3. What time of year is it and what conditions are created by the season? This question helps determine how the knife will be carried. If it is winter, the survival knife may be carried outside the body and not underneath many layers of clothes. Thinking of winter, this question also helps the user consider if the knife can be opened with gloves on just as easily as with gloves off. The question also determines if rain encountered in the spring/summer will affect the grip of the knife. A slick handle may lead to the user riding the blade and causing more of an injury to him/herself.

4. What is the manner of carry? If the knife is carried in a belt sheath, there should be a method of retention other than a friction fit. Also, the knife should be carried in a manner that can be reached by both hands effectively even if it isn’t quickly. Assuming injury, the knife should be obtainable both right and left handed. Many survival knives feature loops to add firesteels and or sharpening stones. Some sheaths have additional features that prove to be more style than substance. Don’t get caught up in the allure if the reality isn’t practical. If the knife is too heavy, it will be left behind unless it is carried comfortably.

5. What are the other items carried when away from home? A person who leaves home with a solid pocket knife or small fixed blade can focus on packing a larger chopping tool or saw. Hollow handles become obsolete if other pocket items are carried every day and are better quality than those that can be crammed into a small handle. A blade doesn’t need to have attributes that look cooler than they actually perform if other items are more specific to purpose. A sawback blade will never cut as efficiently as a folding pocket saw meant for sawing primarily. Knives move farther and farther away from looking and performing as knives when more attributes are added that aren’t needed.

6. Will you actually carry it? Be realistic. A large knife is a heavy knife. If you can’t answer you will always carry it, you shouldn’t carry it. If you invest in a knife that you value too much or you have too many emotions and sentiment tied to a knife, you need to buy another you don’t care about. A small knife is less obtrusive and will likely always be with you. Also, you may not be able to carry your ideal knife if the law prohibits you to. Your survival knife will likely be the knife you actually carry. It won’t be the knife you are preserving in your safe.

Many of the questions asked in this article could become articles on their own. There is ultimately no limit to the questions one can ask in determining if a knife is right. The problem is when a knife’s ability is questionable through a bad experience. Hopefully this article will provide the questions necessary to prevent many bad experiences from materializing in the first place. Your survival should not be dependent on what you carry but how you use what you carry. Selecting the right survival knife is easy, learning to use it to its potential isn’t as easy. Make the right choice in selecting blades and spend more time developing hard skills.