Let’s go over a bit of “basic survival knife 101” and talk about what makes for a good piece of sturdy, handy, sharpened steel to make your time in the sticks just a little bit easier.
However, there is one thing I did want to mention before we begin: I’m personally not much of a believer in the modern “survival” knife concept.
Yes, it is true.
Let’s just say that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen or held a real survival knife — at least, as it’s described in many popular gear magazines — and that’s because I’m fairly certain that they don’t exist. In my own backwoods experience and years of study, there are many types of knives that make for excellent companions. To depend on only one just doesn’t make much sense.
What Makes a Good Knife?
At the end of the day, it would be foolhardy to expect a knife to do everything, from building shelter to cleaning a critter to performing those millions of other critical camp tasks.
Different blades are simply required for different applications. But then, I am also well aware that the backwoods can be extremely unpredictable — so if you must depend on one good knife, after say, your pack has taken a 10-mile journey down the river without you — then the following attributes should get you by until you either make it back home or are reunited with that backpack:
1. The tang — Especially if this knife happens to be the only blade at your disposal, then you’re going to want to make sure that it’s extremely well-prepared for a royal beating. That’s why I tend to suggest a knife that possesses a full-tang design. This means that the knife’s metal extends all the way to the bottom of the handle, providing a single, unbroken piece of steel. In most cases, this type of tang formation provides the greatest amount of durability and strength, performing far better than the vast majority of other knife tang configurations.
With that said, I am absolutely NOT a fan of “handle-compartment” designs — especially since most are cheaply manufactured and are basically sold like a gimmick from the get-go. And by the way, I’m just going to come right out and say that a foot-long knife is only going to give you problems in the field, because you’re not always going to be hacking at tree limbs with it. Try whittling a stick into an eating utensil, and you’ll see what I mean. Just keep it between 3.5 inches and 5 inches, and call it a day.
The only real exception to my tang preference might extend into the partial-tang configuration. However, I’d prefer that beastie to be hand-forged. If done right, the handle itself is crafted to reinforce the blade, actually providing an even stronger (and more comfortable) design. That’s why, if you’re willing to spend that kind of cash, then don’t rule out doing business with a talented blacksmith — especially one who knows what they’re doing.
2. The handle. While acquiring a knife with a well-made handle might seem like somewhat of a peripheral design preference, I honestly feel like a good grip is the second most important attribute that makes for a good backwoods knife. Why? Well, it’s actually fairly simple …
For 95 percent of your camp tasks, your hands will be working with this knife. If you don’t have a comfortable handle, then your hands will be paying for it very soon in blisters. Also, depending on the task, a badly designed handle could even lead to slippage (and then a bleeder to follow). This is why I tend to recommend micarta scales on a full-tang knife, especially since they’re extremely tough and super comfortable.
On the other hand, I also tend to be a sucker for custom bone or leather handles. Heck, why not? Handles like that aren’t just comfy … they’re gorgeous, as well.
3. The profile – And now we come to the knife’s profile – or what I’d define as the overall shape of the blade itself. Different blade shapes are designed to do different things, which is why a wide-profile blade is great for skinning and cleaning game with its long cross section, while a Tanto-edged knife is great for, well, penetrating body armor (thus its backwoods application is truly lost on me).
Keep the knife simple! That way, you won’t have to guess at what your exotic “tracker knife” is going to do next. This is why I’d recommend the spearpoint profile, as it offers a little curvature for slicing soft material; whereas, the long straight edge makes for quick work of light chopping tasks. A symmetrical sharp blade is a predictable blade … and predictability makes it easier to get the job done in the safest way possible.
Preparedness: It’s About the Mission, Not the Gear
At the end of the day, it is easy to get glitter-eyed for flashy gear — especially with all the marketing and movies we see these days. And hey, it’s not even a bad thing to purchase a blade for the “cool factor.” However, I’d personally rather be in the bush with an ugly-yet-effective knife than a flashy-yet-useless one. From generally enjoying the backwoods, to those rare situations when you’re pitted against it in a survival situation, it’s best to pack in the gear to meet the mission at hand — rather than plan your mission to fit your gear.
Do you agree? What is your best advice on survival knives? Share your opinion in the section below: