Survival VS Emergency Preparedness Knives

Emergency Preparedness vs. Survival Knives and Kits

By: Kevin Estela Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education 

How often have you heard the term “Survival Kit” used? Personally, I can remember using it almost 20 years ago as a preteen while assembling the contents of a kit I thought would see me through almost any crisis. It was cool to show your friends your Survival Kit when going through camping gear for an upcoming trip. I remember acquiring gear simply because it was survival-related or could be used in a survival situation. What I didn’t understand at the time was the difference between an emergency situation and a survival situation. I didn’t know many survival kit components were in fact items one will likely use and carry for any trip. Now, after years of experience in the outdoors and after countless life experiences, I can differentiate between the two. The differences will change your way of thinking and preparing for life’s unexpected setbacks. 

To understand the differences between an emergency and a survival situation, we need to look at the timing and duration of each event. An emergency happens first and is generally short-term. Survival on the other hand is past the point of an emergency when your lack of planning, lack of skills or any other variable was unable to prevent the emergency from ending with a safe resolution. Think now to the items you carry in your survival kit. Do they handle life’s unexpected emergencies or are you planning on waiting for an emergency to evolve into a survival situation? While I may carry some equipment with me to be better prepared for a survival situation, I won’t put the idea in my head I will get into one. My “never give up, never give in” mindset will get me through an emergency and while the chance of an emergency turning into a survival situation is present, I’ll do my damnedest to plan and prepare to prevent that. 

To help illustrate the emergency vs. survival point, I want you to recall the contents of the dime a dozen hollow handle survival knives from the 80’s and early 90’s. You know the type. Notwithstanding the fact they are mostly garbage (save the now discontinued Chris Reeve one-piece line) and fall apart at the weak tang, they contained mostly “survival knife” components. They contained a small fishing kit, matches, a wire saw and likely some sort of button compass. Think about how bad your emergency would likely be if you needed to resort to fishing for food, for a wire saw to provide firewood and a button compass for way finding. The contents of those kits were never recommended to be carried alongside the means to provide shelter, water collection/purification or signaling. You just bought a survival knife and that is all you need. Right? I know these knives would not sell as well if they included an “emergency kit” in the handle filled with more practical gear for short term emergencies. Maybe they could have included a water bladder, purification tablets, copy of your identification, small L.E.D. light, usable cordage or duct tape. Perhaps if they went the extra step to include a spare key to your car, a few $20’s to cover your bill or medication to stop you from going into anaphylactic shock, the knives would sell better. I know I’d buy one if it came with money and a key to your car. 

Think now to what you could be carrying in an emergency kit. Try not to let the survival fantasy overwhelm your thoughts. While it is cool to think about making a twitch up snare, isn’t it easier to pack a calorie dense food? When you think about packing your equipment, think about realistic emergencies that have happened to you in your lifetime, in your friends and in stories exchanged at the bait shop or hunting lodge. What happens when you get cold and wet? It is an emergency but not a survival situation…yet. You need fire so carry a good fire starter but don’t neglect to carry tinder. Ever hear of someone losing something in the dark? Maybe their tactical pressure cap switch flashlight? Carry a small backup on the outside of your kit so you don’t have to open in and potentially spill the contents all over creation. Our bodies are susceptible to the cold and to heat, please carry a means to reflect that heat and create shade like a good quality (no cheap substitutes here) space blanket you can quickly use to conserve it and throw in some duct tape for good measure. Of course, you can’t forget your water needs. While cotton mouth is an annoyance, letting that dehydration go further can lead to a survival situation. Carry the means to collect and treat water and or the means to drink right from the source on demand with a survival straw. 

Finally, think about what an emergency knife is and what survival knife is. Popular wisdom says the knife you have on you is your survival knife. I’ve used that saying before but for the average person who is not in harm’s way in a foreign country, you have no excuse not to have a blade on you. Granted, you can’t carry a sharp object on a plane and you will need to improvise in some situations but, and I mean a big BUT, you should always have at least one knife on you if you have no excuse not to have one on you. Chances are, it won’t be the biggest or baddest in the land but it should be a high quality knife. It should be sharp and well suited to discrete carry when you will likely not notice you’re carrying it until you need it. I’ve used less than macho folding knives to cut duct tape while making a waterproof splint on a canoe trip, a small fixed blade to make my fire when my large chopping blade was buried in the bottom of my pack on a winter camping trip and the most humble SAK classic to remove a painful sliver in my foot walking barefoot on a wooden deck. I know what you’re saying, that last one wasn’t an emergency situation but if you saw the girl I was with, I couldn’t fail at looking cool because my foot had a boo boo. 

There is nothing wrong with carrying survival equipment. In fact, I would rather you carry what you may need as opposed to not have it at all. Then again, you can’t carry everything for any situation and weight and space limitations prevent you from doing this. What you need to do is make smart and informed decisions as to what is practical. Truly evaluate what emergency means to you and think about your personal attributes, strengths and weaknesses. Your personal kit is just that, personal. Make sure to carry true emergency preparedness knives and items that will prevent an emergency from becoming a survival situation or you may have something really personal written about you, an obituary. Don’t let fantasy cloud good judgment and select your gear based on real needs. Read, understand and prepare for survival but address the greater needs when they are emergencies first.