This may seem completely unnecessary to many, but the question was recently raised in discussion: If you were dropped in the middle of nowhere and could only have ONE item besides your clothing, what would it be? Now, set aside the seemingly smart answers like, “A cell phone,” or “my glasses,” and consider the question honestly as it was intended. If you can only take one tool with you to aid you with survival, what would it be? Some answered “matches.” Some answered “a water bottle.” My answer was, “A knife,” and I stand by my answer. Allow me to defend my choice.
Except for man’s ability to make fire at will and the invention of the wheel, the discovery of a cutting tool – commonly referred to as “a knife” – is probably the next most significant event in our evolutionary history prior to modern times. With this one tool we can cut, chop, skin, clean, butcher, etc. Add a pole and we can hunt, fish, defend and fight at longer engagement distances (at least the length of the pole). With this one tool we can gather and shape the necessary materials for basic shelter, gather and cut fire fuel, gather and prepare meat to cook over said fire, and shape the furs of whatever we’re eating to create better shelter and/or clothing or blankets. With that single tool we can whittle wood, creating more tools, bowls, plates, etc. A water bottle? Absolutely fantastic thing to have but it can ONLY carry water for you. Matches? Great item. But they can ONLY start a fire for you. Aside from a carefully designed modern manufacture multi-tool, find me another single tool in man’s history that will perform as wide a variety of tasks as a common knife.
Now, if we can agree that the knife is a primary and necessary tool for survival, let’s further agree that the knife doesn’t HAVE to be simple. Today’s knives have some truly creative design features that allow them to be more than just a knife. They can also incorporate storage compartments, saws, gut hooks and more. Some are specifically designed to be lashed, or otherwise attached, to a wooden pole for use as a spear. Many of them are designed so that the pommel can be used as a hammer and I won’t even touch on (here) how the sheaths for those knives can be designed to increase what you carry and the versatility thereof.
Further, if we can agree that the knife is your primary and necessary tool for survival, let’s talk for a few minutes about the desired design features for a “survival” knife. First, dismiss from your mind the popular movie survival knife. Not to detract from some great knife designers/makers, but Rambo’s knife ain’t perfect for our needs. Additionally, dismiss from your mind the idea that a survival knife has to be huge. If you’ve ever seen the movie Castaway starring Tom Hanks, you know that he’d have settled for a pocket knife as his survival knife. The things that will determine what your perfect survival knife is have to be decided by you.
Blade length: There are some survival knives made today that have a 3″ blade. There are others that resemble a small machete. In general I recommend a knife blade no less than 4″ but no longer than 9″. The strength of a longer blade is that you can use it to chop, clear brush, and spear with (attached to a pole). The challenge of the longer blade is using it for more mundane camp chores such as cutting your food or any fine whittling. Of course, nothing says you can’t choose a smaller blade as long as you recognize the limitations resulting from your choice. And, if you choose a shorter blade you have some options in…
How you carry it: With a longer blade you’re pretty much restricted to carrying it on your belt, mounted to a vest or strapped to your pack. If the blade is four inches or less you can probably find a folding model and have the option of carrying it clipped into a pocket. Remember that knives are like every other mechanical device in the world: The more parts in them, the more easily they can break or become defective. While I would never leave my house without a folding lock blade knife in my pocket, I’d also never intentionally plan on it being my primary survival tool.
Knife design features: Many knives today have blades that are a mix of straight edge and serrated edge. Many of them have “teeth” on the spine (don’t be fooled; VERY few have actual saw teeth on the spine). Some have curved blades; some have double edged blades; some have false edges on the spine; some have a deep choil or no choil or places milled in for you to grip up on the knife past the hilt. Some have a full hilt, no hilt, tilted hilt or partial hilt. Some have synthetic grips, corded grips, hollow handles or a skeletonized handle space. No matter what design features are incorporated into the knife you’re looking at, someone has developed a sales pitch/argument for why that particularly set of design features have been combined into this particular knife in that particular way to result in the best survival knife you could ever spend your money on.
Rest assured of something: if someone thought they could sell you a knife made of pudding, they’d come up with a perfectly rational sounding argument in support of it. That’s why we call it sales pitch. Some of it makes sense. Some of it doesn’t. Ultimately, prior to purchasing any knife, you have to know what you want it to do first. Are you looking for a single tool that incorporates a fire-starter, sharpening stone, storage space AND a good blade? Do you want your knife to chop as well as cut your meat? Do you intend to spear-fish with it? You have to know what you want and what you expect prior to selecting a knife.
And, let’s not forget, nothing limits you to only one knife. Using myself as an example, I always have a folding lock-blade knife in my pocket. On my backpack I have mounted a fixed blade knife with a 4.5″ edge that incorporates a fire-starter and sharpening stone in the sheath. On my vest I have mounted a fixed blade knife with a 9″ edge and a pommel specifically designed for hammering. On my holster platform (worn on my thigh) I have mounted a smaller fixed blade knife with a blade specifically designed for certain medical applications but which also is perfectly sized for food prep and consumption.
So, after reading all that you should know my answer to the question posed in the article title: Yes – I believe a knife is your single most important survival tool. To get the most out of it you need to identify your expectations before you buy.
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