Choosing the Right Knife
Perhaps no other question will create a more energetic debate among outdoorsmen than "what's the best knife?" And when asked, it's likely to produce a lengthy discourse on metallurgy, blade design, blade size, handle materials and sheaths, not to mention more obscure details like edge geometry and choil size. It's easy to be overwhelmed with the overabundance of information. But the question might better be stated as "What knife is the most safe and effective for me?" Choosing a knife, especially one for outdoor/survival use is a highly individualized decision. And it's a decision that should accommodate the user's experience, knowledge, size, environment and type of activity.
To help you make an informed decision, we've enlisted the insight of noted survival expert and knife designer Doug Ritter. Doug is also the founder, publisher and editor of Equipped to Survive (www.equipped.org), a highly respected survival information source.
What are the general characteristics of a good survival knife?
Well certainly there's truth in the old adage that the best knife is the one you have with you. But generally speaking, you really want to have a proper fixed blade knife, one that is versatile enough to perform a diverse set of tasks and durable enough to withstand hard use. It doesn't have to be big and heavy, generally I think a 4"-6" blade is appropriate for most situations. The knife should have full tang construction -- that is, where the blade material extends through the handle. This gives the knife strength. I think the best overall blade design is a drop point blade. It's a versatile design that's very effective for most common field tasks and offers a strong point. A drop point blade is less likely to break at the point than the more common deep clip point design of Bowie style and traditional hunting style knives. A short, straight clip can also provide the same strong point.
What type of blade steel works best?
How the steel is treated is just as important as the type of steel. The best steel improperly heat treated and tempered is likely to be worse than a lesser steel properly prepared. 1095 and similar carbon steels remain the classic favorite of survival knife aficionados because of their strength and edge retention characteristics. But, because carbon steel is more likely to rust, these knives require extra care and attention many are unwilling to provide. However, most current stainless steels like AUS 8, VG-10, 440C, 154-CM, S30V and others will hold up just as well and require less maintenance and far less care. Technically not a stainless steel, D2 steel is becoming more popular because of its increased corrosion resistance compared to other carbon steels, and the edge holding and toughness properties it offers.
How about the handle?
The handle should be comfortable to hold in any position, which is why few well-designed knives have deep finger grooves. The best handles are designed to provide a firm grip and to be slip-resistant, especially when wet. If a handle is too grippy, or is textured too much, it can cause hot spots and blisters in heavy use. With smaller knives, particularly folders, it sometimes requires a trade-off of more grippiness to ensure safety. A lanyard hole is an important feature to prevent the loss of the knife. You don't need to accidentally lose your most valuable survival tool. Always use a wrist lanyard while working with a knife over water or anywhere else where it might be dropped and lost.
And the sheath?
Traditionally made of leather, sheaths are now also made of ballistic nylon with rigid inserts or are molded from Kydex or Concealex and are form fitted to the knife they support. Regardless of the construction, a proper sheath should hold the knife securely and protect both you and the knife. Many sheaths are not secure and it's too easy to lose the knife out of them. Quite a few sheaths now have multiple options for mounting to a vest, pack, or belt, allowing you to place the your knife pretty much anywhere you wish. Some sheaths have accessory pockets for storing sharpening stones, multitools or small outdoor essentials.
Don't most people just carry a folding knife?
A folding knife or pocketknife makes a good companion and back-up to your primary fixed blade knife. However, for many it is going to be their primary knife because they cannot carry a fixed blade on their belt for various reasons. It is not going to be as strong as a fixed blade, but since you have it with you, it will generally do the job, especially if it's a high quality knife. A locking blade is a must. Non-locking blades can cause serious injuries -- the last thing that you need in a survival situation. One-handed opening is another must have. You may have an injury to one hand or, even if that's not the case, one hand may be occupied with an important task at the very time you need to deploy the knife. Many knives have this feature and it's just common sense to take advantage of it. In general, the same guidelines regarding blade design and steel apply to folders.
What about multi-tools?
A multi-tool can be a great asset to someone trying to survive and is a good compliment to a fixed blade knife. It is NOT a substitute for a good folder, however. The blade is always a compromise and the ergonomics always suffer. There are a great many to choose from with a host of features. The usefulness of a multi-tool depends upon the type, number, size, and design of the blades and other implements. The ideal multi-purpose tool being carried for survival purposes should incorporate, at a minimum, wire cutters capable of cutting moderately hard wire, a plain edge blade (though there are those who will prefer a serrated or partially serrated blade and an argument could be made that as long as you carry a robust, plain edged folding knife, it really doesn't much matter if the tool has a serrated blade), an effective saw blade, a file, and a selection of slotted and Phillips screwdrivers with maximum possible reach. Beyond that, individual preferences take over.
A knife is one of the most important tools to have in the outdoors. It's the tool that helps you complete many of the tasks essential for survival-shelter construction, fire building, signaling, food gathering and preparation, and much more. This is why folding knives are listed as an essential item by the National Park Service, The Boy Scouts and a host of other outdoor organizations, and why experienced outdoorsmen treat their knives as sacrosanct.