Hiking Tip # 1: The Survival Knife

January 28, 2017

survival-knife-comparisonIn the beginning of my hiking and backpacking journey, it became clear that there is a definite controversy surrounding “survival” knives. Despite this, everyone seems to agree that a good survival knife is an essential item for backpackers. There are many good resources to access regarding learning about survival knives.  I have experimented with some of the survival-type knives marketed over the years and for me the key word is versatility and practicality when it comes to carrying fixed-blade knives. The defining question on fixed-blade knives is how such a knife will be used in the field. For me, the term “survival” knife is a definition for a purpose or an application of the knife. That means that the intended purpose of the knife is for it to be the one all-purpose knife that you will rely on exclusively in the field to save your life should you get lost or separated from your gear.[1]  Also, you must understand there are many categories of survival: combat/tactical, wilderness, urban, water/sea, jungle, mountain, desert, medical, emergency, etc. There are knives available for each of these survival categories.

Therefore, a person needs to define what kind of use they want to get out of a fixed-blade knife. Is the knife going to be used primarily around the campsite or bivouac to build shelters, process meat, process wood, build snares or traps, cook, etc.? Will the knife be used for hunting, fishing, camping, or self-defense? While serving in the U.S. Army, I found that there is such a thing as having too much knife (i.e. cumbersome and impractical). Lugging a long-blade knife around your waist and the only chance you get to use it is when you open an MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) is my definition of too much knife. Moreover, there is a big difference between using a knife to survive in a combat environment and using one to get you through the wilderness (i.e. bushcrafting, big game hunting, or a through-hike on the hiking trail). For those who practice wilderness survival and bushcrafting as their primary activity, then the type of fixed-blade knife that they will use and recommend is well defined.  For those less inclined to practice woodsmanship or bushcrafting, then there seems to be more variety of fixed-blade knives from which to choose. To determine what one needs for a survival knife, there are some basic characteristics that are universally accepted by outdoor experts that define a good survival knife.

First, the knife must be full tang. Full Tang means the knife blade and handle tang are formed from a singular piece of steel.  The tang is the part of the knife upon which the handle scales are attached.  The knife tang should extend to the bottom of the handle and not taper into the handle as in a “rat-tail” design.  Some knives marketed as survival knives have a hollow handle molded, bolted, or welded to the blade. This makes the knife vulnerable to cracking and breaking at the joint where the blade and handle meet. When I first learned about this difference, I quickly discovered that you get what you pay for. Most hollow-handle survival knives that are inexpensive fall into this category. However, in recent years, there has been some significant improvements on the hollow-handle knives and some people are starting to recommend them as a useful knife.[2]

The second characteristic of a good survival knife involves blade thickness. A good survival knife needs the blade thickness to be between 3/16 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch. This provides a solid and durable blade that will last if you properly take care of it. Other sources will have additional considerations. However, I found that if you find a knife that meets these first two specifications then the other recommended characteristics for a good survival knife will fall into place.

Some other points of argumentation that one will find in the literature or online concerning survival knives are about the type of metal the blade is made from, the grind of the cutting edge, blade coating, and the edge of the blade spine. Again, this is easily worked out if one has a good idea of what they want the knife to do in the field or on the trail. If you are a hiker or backpacker that likes to do bushcrafting while you are outdoors, then your preference in a survival knife is going to be a bushcrafting knife with all the accepted characteristics (90° blade spine, no serrated edges, Scandinavian grind cutting edge, 5 to 6-inch blade made from 1095 High Carbon Steel with no coatings). If you are a camper or a hiker just out for a couple of hours or spending the night in a prepared bivouac and you are carrying your tent, stove, and food, then there are a variety of options available to you for a good fixed-blade knife.

There is one knife that is the exception to these general considerations.  It is the Morakniv® Bushcraft Survival Knife. Most of the experts agree that this is the best knife to possess if you are on a budget or as a secondary knife in your kit. It is not full-tang and its blade is just under 5 inches; however, it meets the other criteria that bushcrafters and outdoorsman are looking for in a knife. If you are a hiker or backpacker and do not want to spend a lot of money on a knife, but want a good, solid, reliable knife, the experts agree that the Morakniv® Bushcraft series are the best knives.

Finally, a short comment on serrated edges. There is much ado regarding a knife blade with a serrated edge and one without. For me, it is a matter of preference and being able to answer the question that I mentioned earlier, “What is the purpose of your knife”? If you want to cut down on weight in your backpack and are interested in carrying only one knife, then a knife with a serrated edge may be a viable option. The serrated edge provides some versatility with the ability to saw small diameter limbs or materials such as plastic. If you are going to carry a good multi-tool (e.g. Leatherman® Sidekick or Gerber® Diesel), then I do not think you really need a knife with a serrated edge. The multi-tool already gives you the capability to saw things. If you expect to process wood with a saw-type tool, then I would recommend carrying a decent folding limb saw to round out your basic tool needs as a backpacker.[3]

It must be remembered that many of the knives being marketed as survival knives are actually tactical knives designed for military use with some cross over applications in law enforcement. The serrated-edge tactical knives provide soldiers and field medical personnel the ability to cut through MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) gear and armor plate carriers when rescuing or rendering medical aid to an injured or wounded service member.  Commercial stainless steel fine-edge knives are not as efficient at cutting though military-grade Cordura® material as the Berry Compliant tactical knives with serrated edges. Tactical knives are very attractive and inspire confidence, but they have little application in a non-tactical environment. Additionally, most of these tactical knives have the serrated edge near the hilt of the knife which is the most important cutting surface of the blade for notching other carving and cutting tasks that require more hand dexterity and precision. The tasks become more difficult if you are trying use one of these serrated tactical knives to cut notches in limbs or carve out a slot in a small piece of wood for a trap or fire-making kit. So, consider carefully what you are going to need a survival knife to accomplish before purchasing a knife that looks awesome but is useless to meet your needs.

So, have fun, do some shopping, and once you are settled on the knife that meets your needs, exhaust its use.  See you on the trail!

[1] Dave Canterbury, “Knives JMHO”, Wilderness Outfitters, YouTube®, accessed December 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpNQS6CX7FA&index=2&list=PLZLagqylZ3j4VEKfSuM-2jZrwsh689YSs.

[2] Jack Richland, “Rambo Survival Knife”, Black Scout Survival, YouTube®, accessed December 15, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8YR-YmGFiw.

[3] The basic tool needs for backpackers: fixed-blade knife, folding blade knife, multi-tool, and folding saw; a small camp axe is optional.