Everyone with an interest in survivalism and disaster preparedness should know a thing or two about knives. More than handy kitchen helpers and weapons for self-defense, knives are priceless tools that can prove useful in a variety of survival scenarios.
With such a large variety of knife types out there to choose from, it can be a bit overwhelming trying to choose the right blades to keep in your survival kit.
In my experience, there are just a few knives that are indispensable in a survival situation—so if you’re short on space and want to be as prepared as possible, here is a guide to must-have knives for survival (and how to use them).
Of course, the top knife a survival-minded person needs to have is a hollow-handled survival knife. Now, there are mixed feelings about the usefulness of this type of knife in the survivalist community, mostly centered around the potential flimsiness of a blade that isn’t full-tang.
In my opinion, survival knives are still worth having in the survival kit because they are compact and serve multiple purposes. You may not be able to use your average survival knife as a makeshift ax for splitting firewood (although with some of the better brands, you probably could!), but if the blade is well cared for, you’d probably have no problem dressing game like rabbit or deer.
The hollow handle of a survival knife can be loaded up with small survival goodies (fishing line, weights and hooks, waterproof matches, a wire saw, bandages—all sorts of things) that will be fairly well-protected from the elements inside the handle. The compass built into the pommels of many of these knives is also handy for keeping on track in spite of low visibility (or an admitted bad sense of direction, if you’re me).
The survival knife consists of an all-purpose blade, mini weather-resistant storage compartment and compass—all in one ten-inch package. The versatility of the common hollow-handled survival knife is why it makes my list of must-haves.
The “large and in charge” machete is another must-have knife for the survivalist. If you should find yourself in an area where vegetation has taken over, you can easily cut a path through by chopping back tall grasses, low-hanging tree limbs and vines with a machete.
It’s not only for hacking back plants, though—the weight and size of the typical machete blade make it ideal for the timely on-site processing of large game animals. One common mistake made when wielding a machete is overuse of the middle section or rear section of the blade.
Although it can be used as a sickle, it is not a sickle. To get the most “oomph” from your machete as a cutting tool, practice finessing the tip of the blade instead. Machetes can be used for more than just hacking and slashing your way through plant life and fallen elk—the size and length of the blade makes it double as a handy spatula or hands-free potholder at dinner time as well as a good tool for wood splitting (perhaps not alone, but certainly by batoning it with another chunk of wood or a rock).
Note: I don’t recommend wearing a machete hanging freely from your belt because its length can prove cumbersome when you’re trying to be surefooted in an area of uneven terrain. Instead, I suggest strapping it to the back of your pack when it’s not in use, or investing in a sheath that straps flush to your thigh if you have a strong preference for wearing it on your belt. This will keep it handy as needed, but safely out of the way and unable to “catch” on things at inopportune times.
Scrappy cousin to the machete, the Bowie knife can handle a multitude of tasks just like its brush-and-bush-busting counterpart, but was designed for use in combat, so it is very handy for use in self-defense in a survival situation.
Where I live, there are uniquely gorgeous landscapes to behold in the chaparral ecosystem, which makes for an ideal day hike. However, these landscapes are often inhabited by big cats. Now, big cats (specifically in my case, mountain lions) will often leave you alone so long as you leave them alone—but a mother mountain lion defending her cubs may behave unpredictably (or rather, predictably aggressively) and sadly, recent times of drought have caused the big cats to feel thirsty, angry, and ready to pounce on humans who come their way. In such a case, having a Bowie knife that you are skilled enough to wield can mean the difference between life and death.
I prefer the shorter-bladed Bowies myself, with a blade length of six to eight inches. Ideally, the Bowie should have a full tang (a blade that is one continuous piece that is embedded into the handle) and be heavy enough to be sturdy, but light enough to carry without feeling like a brick.
Although they were designed with defense in mind, Bowie knives can also take the place of machetes in various survival situations, from brush clearing to wood chopping (and acting as a makeshift spatula at supper time).
Many who hunt prefer use of fixed blades when dressing a deer or other reasonably large game animal or carrying a kit that includes several tools to aid in skinning and processing kills, but for compactness you can’t go wrong with a triple-blade folding knife whose sole purpose is aiding in the dressing of game.
These handy folders include a straight blade that can be sharpened to a razor-like edge to help with making the incisions for skinning anything from a rabbit to a moose, a gut hook to aid in laying bare the viscera of the animal, and a saw blade for cutting through bones.
To have butchering basics all together in one easy-access, compact package, you can’t go wrong with a game-dressing folder. Some of these folders will feature a greater number of accessories that fold out, and some will have fewer—but I think the triple-tool folder is just right for combining minimalism and survivalism into a winning field processing situation (call me Goldilocks!).
Swiss Army-style knife or multi-tool
The compact, “jack of all trades” of knives, the Swiss Army-style knife (or other multi-tool) is another one that should be in every collection. It is highly unlikely that a traditional Swiss Army knife is going to help you fight off a bear or hack your way through jungle-like foliage, but for the smaller tasks that are sometimes overlooked when considering survival situations, this type of knife is an essential.
My own knock-off brand multi-tool knife features an array of tools and has proven handy over the years whenever I needed a two-inch straight blade, a saw, a Philips-head screwdriver, a corkscrew or a nail file (don’t laugh!).
This is a tool that is not only useful in a situation where surviving without modern amenities is a necessity, but is also helpful to all types of people in the moment, which is why I keep Ol’ Faithful in my purse instead of tucking it away into my camping kit or survival bag.
You never know when it’s going to come in handy, from popping open salvaged canned goods to skinning small game to snipping a stray thread (hey, mine has nice, functional scissors!) to popping open the wine at a party when the host didn’t have a corkscrew on hand.
Most of us won’t need everything from our current lives in a bare-necessities survival situation, but the Swiss Army-style knife is one that I maintain is vital in a survival scenario, and just too-handy-not-to-have as part of your everyday life.
Let’s take a moment to be honest here: survival isn’t all evading big cat attacks and hunting for game. So even though a big blade can generally do whatever a little blade can, when you’re just looking to get a tiny task done, using a larger knife can become unwieldy (have you ever tried to clean a fingernail or do precision whittling with a Bowie?).
When you’re not tearing through thick brush or hacking down tree limbs (or uncorking a bottle of wine), you may find that a small pocket knife—in the form of an itty-bitty folder—is all you need to fit the bill.
When you’ve got survival handled and are looking to add a bit of quality to your life, you’d be surprised how well an itty-bitty folder can work to do just that.
When supper’s been hunted down, dressed and cooked and shelter’s been squared away and ennui sets in, why not break out the folder and do some whittling? Or keep up with dental hygiene with your “toothpick”? Clean the dirt from under your fingernails?
I’ve been told before that my itty-bitty folder is just a waste of space and laughed at for insisting on carrying it, but I reason that since it’s about the size of your average flash drive (and has a thinner profile, to boot), I can spare the miniscule amount of space in my bag for the peace of mind my teeny-tiny knife brings me.
We’ll see who’s laughing when I have a sparkling smile and a neat wood carving to show for it!
But seriously, you’d be surprised how many uses can be packed into such a tiny package.
Images by the author