How to Use a Survival Knife


Plan on surviving should the worst happen? Buy a top-notch survival knife and you're halfway there.
Plan on surviving should the worst happen? Buy a top-notch survival knife and you're halfway there.
©iStockphoto.com/asist

Your compass is trained on north; north is where you know a highway stretches across the horizon; the highway is where you know you'll finally have the chance to be saved. It's been days since the accident that sent you sliding into the rapids and tumbling over a waterfall. Body bruised, arm broken, head concussed, it was hours before you woke up dazed and vomiting on the bank of the river.

You lost your pack in the fall. Phone, tent, sleeping bag, spare clothes, hiking boots, food -- gone. All you have left is your wilderness survival kit, and thank goodness for that. Without it, you'd be dead. And over the past several days, one item in particular has endeared itself to you time and time again: the survival knife.

You figure you're still a day or two away from civilization, and as evening approaches, the temperature is falling fast. You start making camp, using your survival knife to cut the large amount of wood you'll need to fuel your fire throughout the frigid night. But suddenly, the blade snaps off at the handle and flies back over your shoulder. Shaking over the thought that you could have just lost an eye, you think back to when you stood in the camping supplies store to stock up on equipment and surveyed the vast array of knife choices. Did you buy a dud?

It's entirely possible. Choosing a knife you might have to rely on to keep you alive in the face of blizzards, blinding heat or bear attacks can be pretty daunting. Will a machete serve best? How about a hollow-handled knife offering waterproof storage? Is a folding or a fixed knife more useful? Do you want a blade that's serrated or smooth, thick or thin, long or short, stainless steel or carbon steel?

More to the point, should you have bought more than one survival knife? Then you'd have a backup. As it is, you have a serious problem: how to keep yourself warm, sheltered and fed long enough to reach the highway and salvation. On the next page, we'll take a more in-depth look at what uses a survival knife has when you're lost in the wild, and why the type of blade you buy matters so much.

Using a Survival Knife

A fire can make the difference between life and death on an icy winter night -- and a survival knife can be a big help in the process of building one.
A fire can make the difference between life and death on an icy winter night -- and a survival knife can be a big help in the process of building one.
©iStockphoto.com/Kativ

Now that you have your survival knife picked out -- and you're good and lost in the wilderness -- let's go over some of the ways your knife can help you out.

Depending on the situation, some of the first things you'll probably need to accomplish include bandaging wounds, starting a fire and building a shelter. A survival knife can help with all three. Whether it's cutting thread and gauze; collecting tinder, kindling and firewood; starting the fire; or fashioning the shelter and lashing down a windproof material with appropriate lengths of rope, you'll often find your knife handy.

At this point your stomach is probably rumbling, so let's consider how a survival knife can help you snag some grub. You can use it to collect edible plants; carve spears, fishhooks and components of animal traps; skin game; gut fish and avoid eating with your fingers (as long as you're very careful about it, of course). Beyond these common uses, you may stumble across others particular to your specific survival scenario. For example, if your knife is shiny enough you can use it to signal distress.

Don't be tricked into buying a gimmicky knife like the ones with hollow handles for storing other emergency supplies. Not only do you sacrifice strength by reducing the tang, what happens if you lose it? You're out a lot more than a knife! Keep other survival gear in a separate wilderness survival kit, which you can read more about in the article How Wilderness Survival Kits Work.

It can't hurt to carry a spare either. This can be another survival knife like the type we've been talking about, or it can be a folding knife or a multipurpose utility tool, which while less strong than a fixed blade, can still be useful for tasks that involve slicing and skinning. If you lose your main knife this one won't be able to fully replace it, but it'll be better than nothing. Just be careful -- these blades are less reliable and may pose a safety risk since they can snap shut on your fingers, even with a locking mechanism.

Find more safety tips for using your new survival knife on the next page.

Survival Knife Safety

A survival knife can help save your life, but it can also cause you harm if you aren't careful using it. The most basic safety measure is to always cut away from your body. Keep your eyes on what you're doing, and keep a firm grip on the knife and whatever you're cutting so there are no slipups. You also want to make sure you don't run with a knife, try to grab a falling knife or leave a knife lying around unsheathed. Always use two hands if you're closing a folding knife.

Be extremely careful about using a knife if you're not focused on the task at hand. Hunger, thirst, cold and exhaustion can all be powerful distractions, so make sure you're up to performing whatever activity you're attempting. Otherwise, you could just end up making your situation more dire.

Since your survival knife is so incredibly useful, you'll want to take great care you don't damage or lose it. If you don't let it down in this respect, it's much less likely to let you down in return. Survival knives are built tough to undergo rigorous use, but some are less durable than others so it's usually best to avoid getting too creative when using them. For example, since these knives aren't meant to bend, they can break if you try to use them to pry things open. You also want to avoid using then as awls because this can damage the tip. Don't stick your knife into the ground and don't heat it unless it's essential.

Keep the knife clean, dry and sharp at all times. When you sharpen it, be careful to maintain the point and overall shape of the blade or it could weaken. Always make sure you put it away (ideally fastened to your belt) after you've finished using it, because otherwise you could break camp without grabbing it. Sheaths can be made of many materials like leather, metal, plastic or cloth. Whichever you choose, make sure it's reinforced and attaches firmly to your body. A hole for hanging it on a lanyard can be handy, too. Remember never to throw your knife either -- beyond possibly damaging it, this is also a good way to lose it.

One last good tip is to always buy a survival knife from someone knowledgeable in the field. It's worth the trip to a specialty store to know you have a knife that won't let you down, even in the face of dire circumstances. For more information that can help you out in a pinch, venture a look at the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Benton, Gary. "Wanna Bet Your Knife on it?" Simple Survival. 2003. (11/4/2009) http://www.simplesurvival.net/knife.htm
  • "Knife Review Page -- Considerations for Choosing a Survival Knife." SouthwestGuidebooks.com. (11/3/2009)http://www.southwestguidebooks.com/primitive_skills/knife_reviews.htm
  • "Knife Tips: Get an Edge." January/February 2005. (11/4/2009)http://www.backpacker.com/february_2005_skills_knife/gear/8607
  • Knight, Jason. "Choosing the Best Survival Knife." Alderleaf Wilderness College. (11/3/2009)http://www.wildernesscollege.com/best-survival-knife.html
  • Mandeville, James. Survival-Expert.com Web site. (11/3/2009)http://www.survival-expert.com/home.html
  • "Prepared to Survive." LifeView Outdoors. (11/4/2009)http://www.lifeviewoutdoors.com/knife.html
  • "Survival Knife." Lifesong Wilderness Adventures. (11/4/2009)http://www.lifesongadventures.com/survival-knife/
  • "Survival Knife." Pocketknife.org. (11/4/2009) http://www.pocket-knife.org/survival-knife.html
  • "Wilderness Survival Guide." Wilderness-Survival-Skills.com. (11/4/2009)http://www.wilderness-survival-skills.com/index.html