How To Choose the Perfect Survival Knife

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I don't remember my first kiss or even who it was with. I can barely recollect getting my license to drive. I vaguely remember my high school graduation and my entire time spent at college is a blur. However, I remember exactly where I was, what I was wearing, and how I felt when I got my first survival knife over 20 years ago. Just thinking about it brings back some of my fondest childhood memories. It was the RAMBO knife with the hollow handle that housed a little fishing kit along with a few other miscellaneous items. My love affair with knives began at a young age, and I've been hooked ever since. Movies seem to always have the coolest survival knives, but does the survival knife really have a place in the “real world?”

That was a rhetorical question. Yes, it most certainly does.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 2010 marked the highest number of disasters in one year for the United States — totaling in at 91. The disaster tally in 1953 was only 13, and it has been gradually increasing ever since. Despite our advancements in medicine, technology, travel, and communications, millions of people across the globe face disaster and its merciless consequences each year. In addition, thousands of individuals are thrust into unexpected and unpredictable life or death situations where survival depends on experience, knowledge, and the resources on hand. My point? It is wise to keep important survival resources close by — just in case. One of your most important survival tools is a quality knife. The cutting blade has carved itself an indispensable place in survival history. For thousands of years, man has depended on a cutting tool of some kind to help meet basic survival needs: food, water, fire, and shelter. Now, in our modern society, we casually refer to this blade as the “survival knife.” It has certainly earned that name. However, not all survival knives are created equal.

I have the privilege of strapping a survival knife to my hip on almost a daily basis here at Willow Haven. I completely understand, though, that this isn't practical for most. At a minimum, a survival knife should be kept accessible. You might be surprised how often you'll use it — even if not in a survival situation. I never travel without my survival knife. I pack it in my checked baggage on the plane. I keep it on my hotel nightstand. It's always in the console of my truck when road-tripping, and I never set off for an adventure without it. Whether fishing, backpacking, hunting, boating, skiing, hiking, or camping, my knife is a trusted companion. I'm rarely more than a stone's throw away from it at any given moment.

A “survival knife” is just as it sounds — a knife that can help you survive. It is a tool with literally hundreds of survival-related functions. Below is a short list:

  • Cutting/Slicing
  • Digging
  • Splitting
  • Self-Defense
  • First Aid Tool
  • Food Prep
  • Shelter Building
  • Fire Making
  • Hunting Weapon
  • Prying Tool
  • Signaling
  • Hammering
  • Make-Shift Screwdriver

When it comes to your survival knife, less is typically more — despite what you may see on TV. Hang the cool movie prop knife on a wall and embrace the simplicity of a skillfully designed survival knife. Function trumps styling — always. Your first priority is performance and that will depend on a variety of time-tested key features.

6 Important Survival Knife Features

Survival Knife Feature #1: Size

Does size matter? Yes, but when it comes to your survival knife, bigger is not always better. If your blade is too big, you sacrifice the ability to effectively use it for detailed tasks such as dressing small game or carving precision snare sets.

On the flip-side, a small blade does not perform well with more rugged tasks such as batoning and chopping. Batoning is when you strike the back of your knife blade with a heavy object to drive the knife through thick or stubborn wood. This allows the blade to be used for splitting wood and cutting through large limbs and trees.

Having used many survival knives, I've found the ideal size to be around 9-11 inches in length. For example, my Blackbird SK-5 survival knife pictured below is 10u201D in OVERALL length with a 5u201D blade.

Survival Knife Feature #2: Fixed Blade

A fixed blade knife is more durable and reliable than a folding knife. While I love a good folder for Every Day Carry (EDC), a fixed blade has the upper hand when it comes to meeting the demands a survival situation might present.

A joint of any kind is a weakness. Minimize the risk of damaging or losing your key survival resource by choosing a knife that is better suited for pounding, chopping, thrusting, prying, and rigorous cutting.

Survival Knife Feature #3: Full Tang

Not only should your survival knife be a fixed blade, but it should also be FULL TANG. “Full tang” indicates that the blade and handle are constructed from one continuous piece of metal. Scales or grips are typically attached to the handle portion for a more comfortable grip. A full tang knife is much more robust than partial tang styles such as the half tang, push tang, or rat-tail tang. As you can see in the photo below, the profile of a full tang blade is much more substantial than its rat-tail friend.

Over time, partial tang knife blades can loosen and develop “play” in the handle — especially under demanding tasks such as batoning, prying, and chopping. If a partial tang blade comes loose from the handle it can be very difficult (and dangerous) to use effectively. In contrast, a full tang knife blade is still very functional even if the scales come off. It can be wrapped with cordage for added comfort and grip.

There is absolutely no advantage in choosing a partial tang blade over a full tang design for your survival knife. It's difficult to break a solid piece of continuous metal. An easy way to spot a full tang knife is to look for the metal tang sandwiched between the knife's scales. Below are a few examples. *Note: Not all full tang knife blades have an exposed tang as shown in these examples.

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