Quick: If you had to pick one implement to have on your person while stranded in the middle of nowhere, what would it be? OK, if you said banjo, go to the back of the line. Acceptable answer? Knife. But is a regular pocketknife good enough, or do you need something special? And how exactly do you survive with only a knife? To get some answers, we talked to Robert Allen, President and Lead Instructor at Sigma 3 Survival School, which offers a knife-only course, and Chris Cashbaugh of SOG Specialty Knives & Tools.
Let’s begin with life—and the purpose of this particular edition of How To Survive!—awesomely explained by Allen: “Human beings need tools of some type in order to survive; that is our survival adaptation. We don’t have fur, we don’t have claws, and we’re slow. So, we have to use our brains and create tools and leverage things that are going to enable us to survive in our environment.” You may want to argue a point about that hairy guy in the pool last summer, but we bet he didn’t also have claws.
There are many different types of knives, blades, handles, styles, and so on—but don’t you just need it to be sharp and you’re golden? Sure, whatever type of knife you have on you in a survival scenario is immediately deemed a survival knife. But if you’re in shopping mode, know that a folding pocketknife may not be the best choice when it comes down to buying a purpose-built tool. Allen tells us, “If I’ve got one recommendation for everybody, it’s to carry some kind of fixed-blade knife, at least 3-5 inches. I also carry a Leatherman with me, which has a saw blade.” As SOG’s Cashbaugh expounds, “The benefits of a fixed-blade knife are that they are more durable and stronger than folding knives. If you are looking for a knife that can take some abuse, a fixed-blade knife is going to work better than a folding blade.”
When it comes to the blade material, you’ll find your options are pretty much going to be hardened steel, specifically carbon or stainless steel (but don’t send us letters; we know materials like ceramic, titanium, and others exist). Stainless steel is likely what you’ll see more often when researching knife specs, and you’re going to encounter as many fans of that as you are of carbon steel. Stainless steel has a rep for keeping rust at bay better and for holding an edge longer, but carbon steel is known for being easier to sharpen. Allen says he prefers carbon steel. In terms of blade thickness, it refers to cutting ability; thinner blades get through stuff easier than thicker blades. “Most good outdoor knives have a blade thickness of between .125 and .25 inch. This is still thin enough to cut properly, but durable enough for survival needs,” says Cashbaugh.
More blade: serrated (like scallops) or straight (like a razor blade)? Serrated shines when cutting fibrous material, such as ropes and webbing, while straight can slice through just about anything. Allen recommends skipping serration, but Cashbaugh likes ones that have a partially serrated edge, combining the two types.
But there’s more to a knife than its blade. There’s also the handle—you want it to be comfortable in your hand, and size matters; you need a good grip. You’ll also notice they too come in different materials—carbon fiber, aluminum, and bone, for starters. Yes, bone. Durability and wear are also factors when deciding.
And there’s more: knife shape. This generally refers to the blade, not the knife’s design, and includes sheepsfoot, tanto, clip point, and drop point. Allen’s vote is for clip point or drop point.
As you might expect, Allen takes knives seriously; “I’ve got a $700 survival-knife setup,” enabling him to be self-reliant, and not just overnight, but for a month or longer. “A knife is your lifeline. I’ve literally had students come out and make fun of me for spending the kind of money I do on a knife, and then 30 minutes later they break their knife cutting through a piece of hickory.” His “normal-size” knife is a Tops Fieldcraft. And why not just jump straight to the hardcore world of SOG’s Seal Team knife, Team Elite? “It has a large handle and large overall blade. Because of the size, it might not be comfortable for a person with smaller hands to use.” And you know what they say about big hands—big hands, member of the Seal Team.
Now, about surviving with only a knife. Allen broke it down into four categories: shelter, water, fire, and food. For example, the knife could help you procure water by tapping into trees or digging a hole in the ground for a gypsy well, as well as get food, like making a wheel trap (aka fish trap). You could also start a fire using flint and steel. “That’s why it’s important to have a carbon-steel knife instead of stainless steel; stainless steel won’t spark off a flint,” says Allen. And Cashbaugh gave us tips on where some types of blades excel in the cutting department: seatbelt, hook-type blade; animal, straight-edge upswept blade; shelter/wood, thick straight-edge blade; and rubber (like hoses and tires), thin straight-edge blade.
Both our experts had a few don’ts: Cashbaugh reminded us that knives aren’t ideal for cutting or prying metal, nor should they be used as a screwdriver or to open a can (emergency situation notwithstanding), while Allen suggests avoiding using the knife as a pry bar as well as in any steel-on-steel action, like putting the back of your ax on it to split wood, because it will cause weak points in the blade.
When we asked about whether there’s a proper way to hold a knife, Cashbaugh suggested a firm but loose grip while chopping, and for delicate work you can choke up on the blade handle for more control. And one final tip from him: “You wouldn’t want to hold it by the sharpened edge, but other than that, there really is nothing too complicated about holding a knife.” There you have it—easier than a banjo.