There has been much discussion over recent years about survival knives, fed by the enthusiasm generated through popular TV shows such as ‘Man vs. Wild’, ‘Dual Survival’, ‘Survivorman’, and others. Many will say that the knife is the most important tool in wilderness survival, and while I can agree with this statement up to a point, I find it is too often taken to completely different level. I know I’m probably stirring-up a hornet’s nest, but I feel that this issue needs to be addressed, so please bear-with-me.
Everywhere, on forums and youtube especially, I see people talking about the “ideal” survival knife, or their knife of choice if they were “going into a survival situation.” Then come the inevitable comparisons between different blades to determine which knife is superior. Many people talk of survival like it’s a game, or a cool activity – at least, that’s what it seems to me. But why would you want to be thrust into such a scenario where your life is in danger? Sure, you can discuss what may be a more useful blade to have for a particular type of survival situation, but all this is speculation.
Something else that perplexes me is how people want a survival knife to be able to withstand significant abuse – in other words, a full-tang blade often with a 3mm+ thick spine made of a durable carbon steel. Why on Earth would you want to beat up your knife (assuming you are very fortunate enough to not have lost it) in a survival situation?! In such circumstances, you should treat it with care and use it sparingly, as you don’t know how long it will take for the arrival of rescue, or for you to escape and reach help.
There is no guarantee that you will have your prized knife when things go downhill…there are many variables to consider. It could become lost or misplaced at the turn of events; perhaps left back at camp, or submerged in a river when your kayak or canoe capsized from the rapids (these are just examples). And, the average backpacker doesn’t carry a full-tang blade with a thick spine – folders are more commonly brought along because they tend to be a bit lighter, and most backpackers don’t rely on an open fire for heating and cooking. Some may not even bring a knife with them.
So, what exactly is a survival knife? To me, it is ANY blade that you have on your person when circumstances are dire that you use to help you get out alive– this includes scissors, the blade of a shaving razor, a folding knife, etc. If you have no knife or lost it, then a simple piece of broken glass will suffice, or you can attempt to fracture rocks into suitable flakes…I say ‘attempt’ because there is no guarantee that you will find decent stones, even if you know what to look for. But the advantage with making stone flakes is that it requires little skill, unlike precision knapping. And just what can you do with a shard of broken glass or a stone flake? Well, you can cut soft materials such as bark and other plant fibres, sharpen an end of a stick to use for digging, collect the resin from spruces and pines for fire lighting, scrape the bark of junipers and wild grape for tinder, etc. It may not be as efficient as a metal knife and take more effort, but when you have nothing else and are in need of a sharp tool, it will be a major help.
To that end, I certainly do not recommend travelling the wilderness without carrying at the very least one cutting tool, but in a survival scenario, one should be aware of other resources for making sharp implements should the need arise.