The truth about survival knives – should you carry one?

| August 13, 2014

knivesThumbnailSmallThere are many misconceptions about survival knives. In this article, we’ll take a hard look at what they’re really for and whether it’s worth carrying the extra weight when you’re out enjoying nature.

If you ask experts in primitive survival techniques what one thing they would take with them if they had to survive in the woods for an extended time, most would tell you it would be their knife. With just a knife and the natural materials around you, you can:

  • Make tools
  • Make weapons and traps for hunting
  • Prepare your kill for the pot
  • Create sparks for starting a fire by hitting the blade with a stone
  • Cut branches and saplings for building a basic shelter

A survival knife is therefore an amazing tool. The catch is that it takes training and a lot of practice to be able to survive for an extended time with just a knife. Most people are simply not going to see the return on investment for such a large time commitment because the chance of being in this type of survival situation is very slim. Now, there’s no harm in learning primitive survival techniques, or course, and it can be a fun hobby interest that can enhance appreciation of the outdoors. It’s just that if your main interest is using the outdoors to pursue fitness activities, learning primitive survival is tangential to your goals.

For most of us who are pondering whether to carry a knife in the outdoors, we are thinking about a combination of non-survival general utility uses and whether it could possibly help us in a survival situation. If we had a knife we might use it for:

  • General trail duties
  • Wood carving
  • Preparing wood to make a shelter
  • Preparing firewood
  • Self-defense

Let’s look at each one of these in turn.

General trail duties

Performing basic trail duties such as opening food containers, and cutting paracord, duct tape, and blister padding are the most common uses for a knife outdoors. However, these tasks don’t need a fixed-blade survival knife as they can be performed with a small utility knife, razor, or pair of scissors.

FinalCuttingTools-1

The tools in the photo above are small to carry and only weigh 8 grams and 3 grams.

FinalCuttingTools-4

These tools weigh 9 grams and 11 grams. The razor blade in the photo is reversed in its holder and sticks out just enough to be able to perform small cutting tasks. It can be turned around the right way and be used for slightly bigger tasks.

If there is a task that can be performed with one of these tools, it’s better to use it to avoid the risk of injury from a tool that can more easily and deeply penetrate your body in a careless moment.

Scissors on small folding knives and utility tools also work well for these types of tasks. For example, the scissors on the pictured Swiss Army Knife work better than you might imagine.

FinalCuttingTools-2

Multi-tools with snips are also great, although they are relatively heavy to carry. If you’re unlikely to need all of the features of a multi-tool, you’re losing weight efficiency. The knife only weighs 16 grams, but even this lightweight multi-tool weighs more than twice as much at 42 grams.

Wood carving

Wood carving may be the second most common use for a survival knife. I do admit to having performed the essential survival task of sharpening marshmallow sticks more than once. I’ve also had to make the odd spoon and tent peg, such as the one below, when somehow my kit came up short.

carvedstake-1

A sturdy, medium-sized locking folding knife works well enough for whittling wood. We shouldn’t ignore the fact, though, that the more sharp steel we carry, the greater is the risk of injury. Being injured when we’re two days walk and then three hours drive from the nearest emergency room is very different from being injured at home. My worst trail incident happened when I reached behind me into a pocket on my backpack and slid my thumb down the blade of a folding knife that had partially opened. I didn’t have anywhere near enough gauze and bandage to absorb the bleeding and it was eventually closed up in the emergency room.

Our best option for this type of task is, of course, to save the weight and make sure we have all of our gear before we go.

Preparing wood for a shelter

We should be carrying our own emergency shelter if there’s a chance of difficult conditions when we’re out. But, things don’t always go according to plan and having some help to make a temporary shelter, or add an extra layer on top of our carried emergency shelter, is a not a bad idea. A survival knife can definitely be of help here.

It’s possible to chop down a small tree with an average survival knife, but it’s not quick. When you really need a shelter to get you out of the elements, quick is important.

An axe is much faster and less work for these cutting tasks, but I don’t know any hiker who’s going to carry an axe because the weight versus utility trade-off is just not reasonable. There are, however, some reasonably lightweight folding saws available that are effective and could be justifiably carried if you’re heading out into cold weather, especially if you’re sharing some gear with friends.

A related option is a flexible emergency saw. These come in two kinds, the ultralight wire saw and the heavier chain saw.

saws-1

I’ve not had the best success with wire saws as even the better quality ones tend to get hot, and then stick in the wood and break. The chain saws are robust and work quickly, but weigh several times more. The wire saw pictured above weighs 19g and the chain saw weighs 75g.

Preparing firewood

Now we come to the real reason for this article’s existence — preparing firewood in an emergency.

I’ve been cold often enough outdoors to know how important fire is for survival. It’s even possible that my life was saved once because of it. When we’re sitting at home in the warm, imagining our upcoming adventure, fire may not seem that important. But the irony of fire is that the more you need it, the harder it is to make it. And when you really do need a fire, you need to be able to make it fast and before your fingers get too numb to use. If you’ve never experienced bitter cold, Jack London’s short story about a hunter desperately trying to build a fire will help you understand.

With a chemical fire starter, it’s relatively easy to start a fire and keep it going in a coniferous forest, even when it’s damp and cold, because of an abundance of dead, resinous branches and cones. But, starting and maintaining a fire in the wet and cold when you only have hardwood around can be a serious matter.

A survival knife can be used to split wet wood to expose its dry interior and make pieces small enough to catch a flame and grow the fire. Practicing quick fire building with wet wood and just the fire starting materials that we will carry is an essential outdoor skill. Batoning, which is the technique of splitting wood using another piece of wood to hit the back of the knife, is one part of this essential skill.

batoning-1

Self-defense

I’ll be the first to admit that a survival knife can provide a little comfort if you’re alone in mountain lion country, hiking in the dark, and you’re starting to imagine the big kitties waiting for you behind every large tree. There have been a few times when I’ve moved my knife from the bottom of my pack to my hip to make me feel better. If I were to one day find myself with a mountain lion attached to my head, I think I’d be glad of an easily accessible survival knife. However, with only around 10 recorded fatal attacks on adults ever in the US, this scenario is extremely unlikely. Fatal attacks by bears are more likely, but irrelevant for this discussion as a survival knife will just be used by the bear afterwards to floss his teeth. In reality, we may think that we’re carrying a survival knife for self-defense, but in this context we’re really carrying it for self-comfort.

Conclusions

When deciding whether to carry a survival knife in the outdoors, you need to consider whether the extra weight is worth the extra security for you. I’ve made my mind up and the following is the strategy that I choose when trying to sensibly balance risk and weight.

First, I don’t carry any more knife than I think I might reasonably need and I use the smallest blade for each job. This lowers my weight as well as my risk of injury.

Second, I carry the small Swiss Army Knife shown above in my pants pocket, attached to a belt loop with a length of paracord. It’s readily accessible, I won’t lose it, and it will cover most of my cutting needs.

Third, during the summer, if there’s any chance of rain or if the conditions at night mean I would be cold if a mishap resulted in an unplanned overnight stay, I carry a small, lightweight fixed-bladed knife with a skeletonized handle. I can use this for splitting wood to make a fire for warmth or a rescue signal. In a pinch, it can even be used to cut branches and saplings for help in making a shelter.

Fourth, during the winter, I replace my summer knife with a medium-sized survival knife, which I know can make short work of preparing wood for a fire.

The two survival knives I currently carry are shown here:
knives-1

The Fallkniven F1 with its standard sheath weighs 175g, and the Bark River Bravo Necker with its standard sheath weighs 51g.

If I’m going to be in snow or freezing rain, I’ll also carry a pocket chain saw in case I really need to prepare a lot of wood for an overnight fire or make an extra layer of shelter.

Final notes

If you do decide to pack a survival knife, be aware that others on the trail don’t want to know about it. I once joined a couple of hikers who were sheltering under an old barn roof in a cold sleet storm and we decided to build a small fire to keep warm during lunch. I saw a very nervous look on both their faces when I brought out my survival knife to help open a food package, and they didn’t stay around for long.

Also, make sure you’re familiar with the knife laws in your area. It’s probably illegal for you to carry a fixed-blade survival knife in your pocket. If it’s on your person, your only legal option may be for you to have it clearly visible in a sheath on your waist belt.

To read more about survival on the trail, read The 3P modular survival kit: Part 2 – the pocket kit.

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Category: Gear

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