My father always told me, “Use the right tool for the job.”
Well, my father was correct … to a point. In a perfect world, it is always best to use the proper tools, but in a survival situation, you are forced into living in an imperfect world. Nothing is as it should be, which means that your tools—in this case, a knife—have to be able to serve multiple functions.
What follows is what I believe to be a group of the top five knives you can’t do without. This is not a product review; instead, it is designed to give you advice about the knife styles you should have as part of your survival arsenal. As an Amazon Associate, American Survival Guide earns from qualifying purchases.
There are literally thousands of knives on the market today—some good, some not so good. Some fixed-blade knives have full tangs; others do not. Some models have serrated blades; some do not. Some have carbon steel blades, while others have stainless steel. Above all, some are designed to look pretty but can’t stand up to constant use. So, how do you choose?
Decide what your intended purpose for the knife is. Are you cleaning wild game and fish? Do you intend to use the knife for chopping wood? For self-defense?
Keep in mind that all knives can be used for self-defense, but not all knives can be used to chop wood or slice meat. Some knives are better suited for one job, as opposed to multiple tasks.
Don’t buy a knife because some guy on a television survival show or the writer of magazine articles says you should. What works for some people doesn’t work for others.
Cost is another factor. How much are you willing to spend? Some knives are pretty expensive. And just because a knife is expensive doesn’t make it a good knife for you. If a knife has everything you are looking for, it is worth every penny you pay. If it doesn’t, keep looking. I always get the best tools I can afford; that goes for knives, as well.
I look for knives with carbon steel blades. The benefit of carbon steel, especially in a survival situation, is that it generates a spark when used with flint—something that makes these knives valuable when trying to start a fire. You can’t do that with stainless steel. Carbon steel blades are also very easy to sharpen, and they keep an edge. The only drawback to carbon steel is that it will rust if not properly cared for.
With all of this said, here are my top-five knife types, starting with number five.
I first came across the ulu while in Alaska, and I was attracted to it immediately. This knife, which roughly translates into “woman’s knife” (because of its traditional use by Eskimo women), is great in so many different ways. Depending on its size, the ulu is used by the native people of Alaska and Arctic Canada for everything from skinning and cutting up large game to having a place in the sewing kit.
The ulu comes in various sizes and has a half-circle blade, with the handle placed directly above the blade. By design, this knife is manipulated by wrist movement; and, unlike traditional knives, it utilizes the entire blade, making it very efficient. I use my ulu for most of my game processing once I get the animal back home. I even use it to make the strips for jerky.
If you get an ulu, be careful of those made in China for the tourist market. They are made for looks, not use. I got mine from The Ulu Maker (www.UluMaker.com) while in Alaska. This company’s ulus are made for use. The handles are made of either caribou or moose antler, and the blades are high-quality carbon steel. Mine has a 5-inch blade, which makes it perfect for dressing a deer, making jerky or cutting carrots.
Remember: I said knives should have multiple purposes. The ulu is no different. While it is not meant for stabbing, the ulu does make a great personal-defense knife. Due to its semicircular blade, when swung back and forth or up and down, it will make short work of any would-be attacker. Because the handle is right above the blade, this knife will easily sever a finger or an entire hand with minimal effort.
4. FILLET KNIVES
Fillet knives have strong, thin and very flexible blades designed to bend a little without breaking. I own two really good fillet knives—one made by Rapala and the other by Gerber.
The Rapala is a small knife, with a blade only about 5 inches long. The Gerber Gator is a longer knife whose blade measures 7 inches long. The Rapala is perfect for filleting trout and panfish, while the Gator handles larger jobs, such as lake trout, salmon and redfish.
However, fillet knives are not just for fish. Their thin, strong blades make these knives perfect for removing the meat from the ribs and other tight places of the game you take. You cannot afford to waste anything in a survival situation, and this knife will allow you to get all of that less accessible, but valuable, meat. Fillet knives are also perfect for cleaning small-game animals and birds, because they can “surgically” get into places a larger knife can’t.
My father gave me my first pocketknife when I was about 7. He taught me the value and responsibility of carrying a knife. He explained that, “if a man had a knife and a means of making a fire, he could survive anything.”
I never leave home without a pocketknife. Even if I have a knife on my belt and one in my pack, I always have a knife in my pocket. These are utility knives. My favorite pocketknife is my Swiss Army knife.
Typically, pocketknives are folding knives designed to fold and be safely carried in the pocket. They usually have smaller blades—which are handy for all sorts of everyday cutting tasks. Often, they also have multiple blades; in the case of the Swiss Army knife I carry, they have additional tools, as well. My pocketknife is my go-to tool.
I have done just about everything imaginable with my Swiss Army knife. I have stripped the plastic off wiring, carved fishing lures and cut more bailing twine than I want to think about. I have used it to clean fish and small game in the field and even opened that rogue bottle of beer with no twist-off cap. There is nothing this tool can’t do in a pinch.
The only drawback to this knife is its stainless steel blade. While stainless won’t rust, it is hard to keep sharp, so I find myself re-sharpening this knife often.
2. FOLDING KNIVES
As a result of their compact nature, folding knives are easy to carry and can be concealed. While they can be carried in your pocket, more often than not, they have a clip that allows them to be secured to the top of your pocket for easy access. If they don’t have a clip, they are designed to be worn on your belt in a sheath.
These knives are used for general utility, hunting and self-defense. Folding knives are often carried in a case or pouch that fits onto your belt. Like their fixed-blade cousins, these knives come in various blade sizes. They generally have one large blade and no additional tools.
Most folders have a mechanism that locks the blade open to improve safety when it’s in use. Determine the type of lock (if any) your preferred model has, and be sure you’re comfortable with the way it locks and unlocks. There are numerous ways to open the blade quickly with one hand, some of which are subject to legal restrictions in some areas. Check your local laws to see if they could affect your purchase.
I own an old Barlow-style folding knife produced by the Russell Company in the early 1900s. With bone handle grips and a carbon steel blade, this knife can—and has—stood up to everything and is easy to care for. The carbon steel blade makes it easy to sharpen, and it keeps an edge well.
There are some really good, functional folding knives out there; you just need to look for them. Some are the same knives used by the U.S. military … but be careful here:
Some of those knives are knockoffs.
If you want the same knives used by Special Ops groups, you need to go right to the source—and be prepared to pay top dollar for them. Keep in mind that if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. After all, you aren’t likely to find quality knives at the local flea market.
1. FIXED-BLADE KNIVES
A lot of knives fall into the “fixed-blade” category (hunting knives and military-style combat/survival knives). Each fixed-blade knife has its own place in your gear. Each person is going to have their favorite style, size and weight. It is up to you to find the knife that works best for you.
Some advantages of fixed-blade knives over most of the others mentioned are that they have no moving parts and can be used to attack larger projects, such as processing firewood and larger items around camp. Their generally larger size and weight allow some of these knives to replace small hatchets, and the more-rugged designs can be used to pry and perform other noncutting jobs. Models with a full tang (where the blade material extends to the back of the handle) will prove to be more durable than those with blades attached to the handle by means of one or more screws or other fasteners.
My first fixed-blade knife was a hunting knife given to me by my great-uncle Dana, who was an avid outdoorsman. During one of my visits, we started going through his old gear, as we always did. We came across an old KA-BAR Little Finn. After telling me about the knife, Uncle Dana handed it to me. I have carried that knife on every hunting and fishing trip I have made since then.
My next fixed-blade knife was also a hunting knife and is the one I still carry on every hunting trip. It is a 40-year-old Schrade Old Timer I got when I was about 14. Because of its carbon steel blade, this knife holds an edge, no matter what you put it through. I use this knife for heavy work, such as field-dressing a deer. The Old Timer was designed for this task and is the perfect tool for the job.
When I joined the U.S. Army, my mother bought me an Ontario Knife Company Air Force Survival knife as a gift. This knife was my constant companion during my 12 years of military service. When I left the Army, it continued to serve me and was strapped onto my survival bag.
I finally retired this knife after 40 years of use and replaced it with a Gerber StrongArm. The StrongArm is not too heavy, but it is hefty and strong enough to get the job done. During a survival situation, when your life depends on your tools and any knife is a good knife, I would feel very comfortable with the StrongArm strapped to my pack.
The Air Force Survival and the Gerber StrongArm knives both fit the bill as all-purpose survival/combat knives. Both of them will split small pieces of wood for the fire or chop wood to build a shelter. Both have carbon steel blades. They aren’t designed for hunting; nor would they be suitable for carving a fishing lure (although I’m sure they would get the job done if they were your only choice). This style of knife is the workhorse of the knife world.
No one knife is perfect for all jobs, but when choosing the one that is right for you, always remember that it is a tool. And in a survival situation, the best tools are those that can perform multiple functions. The right knife can go a long way to keep you and your family alive.
Pocketknives and most folders do not come with a belt sheath or pouch, but there is a large selection of aftermarket products to choose from. Consider the environment when choosing the material it’s made with, as well as how secure the closure and belt attachment methods will be for your expected activities and that it is snug enough to keep your knife secure in any position and range of motion (but not so tight you can’t access it quickly if needed).
Back in the day, most fixed-blade sheaths were made of leather. They were tough, and they held up to almost anything. But the problem with leather is that it tends to break down over time, especially in tropical or very dry environments. Newer synthetic materials, especially nylon, are quite durable and often perform better than leather.
Hard polymer sheaths, often referred to as Kydex (whether they’re made from that material or not), are very popular now, because they are highly durable and prevent sharp knives from slicing through and injuring the wearer in a fall. Their down side is that they can be pretty noisy if they’re not properly fit to the knife or when scraped across other hard pieces of equipment or the environment.
My Gerber StrongArm has a very hard, rigid and durable polymer sheath designed to withstand hard punishment. It can be worn on a belt or attached to a pack using a MOLLE system.
When it comes to knife sheaths, size does matter. As with the holster for your handgun, it is very important to get a properly sized sheath to fit your knife. Typically, the knife will come with a sheath that fits well; nevertheless, check it before you buy it, because a good knife with a bad sheath is not worth the aggravation it will cause you down the line. Too large, and the knife will flop around and might even fall out. Too small, and you could have a hard time accessing it when you need to.
Your knife is a valuable tool. If you have taken the time to get the perfect knife, you need to take just as much time to find the right sheath. That sheath might not actually be the one that came with the knife.
OPENING ANDCLOSING FOLDING KNIVES
Besides their size, those knives that we classify as“folding” knives differ from most pocketknives by the locking mechanism that keeps the blade securely in place when opened. Folders are designed to remain in the open position until the user purposely closes them. The last thing you want is for your knife to close on you while you are skinning a deer or while trying to defend yourself.
Folders with a “lockback” feature have a lock that engages the blade when it is fully opened. You’ll hear it click when it moves into place. The release is located, as the name implies, on the top of the back of the handle. Simply depress the lever into the handle while securely holding the blade with the other hand and fold the blade into the handle.
Another popular locking method is called the “liner,”or “frame,” lock. While the handles on knives with these features differ in appearance, in both cases, the lock mechanism secures the blade when it is fully opened.
With the knife in the open position, you can see the lock/release in the space where the blade folds into the handle. You’ll see that part of the liner, or the frame, has moved behind the back of the blade to keep it from closing. To release the lock, simply move the liner lock sideways and out of the path of the blade, and close the blade with your other hand.
There are other types of locking mechanisms, but these are the two most common designs.
You would never put your firearm away without cleaning it. The same applies to your knife. All knives, especially those with carbon steel blades, need to be well maintained. Proper care will allow your knife to last multiple lifetimes.
The great news is that it is very simple.
Keep it Clean. After a day of cleaning fish, field-dressing game or even carving a piece of wood, I always wash my knives. Blood from fish and game, as well as the oils in wood, can lead to rust, so it is important to wash your knife and dry it thoroughly.
Keep the Blade Sharp. A sharp knife is a safe knife and will get the job done quicker, better and easier than a dull one. I always carry a small sharpening stone in my pack and touch the blade up as necessary. If you happen to cut yourself, a sharp knife is less likely to leave a nasty cut that will not heal.
Lube. A light coat of gun oil will go a long way toward keeping your knife in tip-top shape. This is especially true for pocketknives and folding knives. Make sure to keep the pivot points clean and moving freely. And because moisture is everyone’s enemy, I like to spray my knives down with GetSome 1000. While this product was designed mainly for the moving parts on firearms and fishing reels, it also works great on my knives.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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