April 05, 2011
Tips for finding the right blade that will keep you alive in a survival situation and also serve you nicely in the field for hunting
From left to right - the Wyoming Saw with both wood and bone blades; the Gerber Pack Saw with wood and bone blades; and the Pocket Chainsaw.
What is a "survival" knife? Descriptions typically range from a heavy-bladed jungle machete to a million-in-one gadget. However, when boiled down to its essence, a survival knife is the knife you have in a survival situation, and that most likely will be the hunting knife you have hanging on your belt -- the tool you brought for field-dressing, skinning, and maybe caping. So where do the two uses -- hunting and survival -- overlap?
Basic criteria for a good survival knife are not much different from what you would want in a hunting knife: sturdy, for breaking up kindling or cutting thick boughs for a shelter; sharp, for efficiency and ease of use; good grip, to keep the knife under control in rain or snow; and versatile, to help with a variety of tasks.
Let me loudly say that there is nothing wrong with an off-brand knife you buy on sale at your local sporting goods store if it meets the criteria. However, a few options will maximize your investment.
I've carried the Cold Steel Master Hunter before, and it is an excellent knife for hunting and survival. It is built like a tank, with a 3„16-inch-thick blade that holds an edge but is easy to sharpen. The grip is Kraton, a tacky-feeling solid rubber that grips well in the nastiest conditions. The sheath is a nearly indestructible nylon polymer called Concealex. Cold Steel also makes the Pendleton Hunter, basically a smaller version of the Master Hunter.
The Elk Hunter by Knives of Alaska is hefty and thick, and also has a good grip. The sheath is leather, which has a traditional feel but is not as tough or resilient as nylon. Knives of Alaska also makes the Alpha Wolf Hunter, slim compared to the Elk Hunter, but just as capable.
My personal favorite in this category is a combination folder from Gerber, which has a 31„2-inch cutting blade as well as a saw blade. The handle has a tacky grip strip on it, and the sheath is molded nylon. This sturdy knife fills your hand well and sharpens easily.
Other companies, like Browning, make folders with saw blades and gut hooks included in them. Go to a store and get a feel for various models. Buying from a catalog, you can't get the feel, especially in regard to the width of a knife with two or three blades. Some can be awkward or uncomfortable, so check them out before buying.
Accessories can be helpful, but the more extras you add, the less "knife" you have. I think Leatherman found a good compromise in the e306x. It is primarily a knife, with a hex-head driver that folds out like an extra blade. Two-sided bits for the driver nestle in the handle. I used this setup to tighten my sights in the field, as well as field-dress an elk, and it performed both tasks very well. The ballistic nylon sheath has room for additional driver bits.
Small multi-tools with screwdrivers, bottle openers, files, and other extras -- along with numerous variations of the Swiss Army Knife -- make excellent additions to any survival kit.
This sturdy fixed-blade knife has a good grip and a durable nylon sheath. The carbide sharpener below it is equipped with a broadhead wrench.
Chopping and Sawing
I can't remember the last time I hunted without a hatchet. Some people think I'm crazy to add the weight, but it is my security blanket. I can cut poles for shelter, kindling for fire, boughs for a bed, and do all three relatively quickly. Additionally, it makes breaking up an elk that much easier. I pack a 12-inch Estwing Sportsman's Axe which weighs about two pounds. The leather grip has a slight J-hook at the bottom to help with retention when it's wet. Gerber makes a great Pack-Axe with a metal head and a nylon handle that is lighter, shorter, and easier to grip. One note about hatchet length -- less is not always better. The extra power generated by a fuller swing can decrease effort and speed up efficiency.
Holeb Outdoors makes the Bushman, which is what a lot of folks might envision a survival tool to be. It is part machete, part saw, and part hammer. For people going into remote territory, this one would be worth considering.
I used to carry an ultra-compact bone saw that fit into a pants pocket, but the stroke was so short that I about ruined my shoulder trying to saw the antlers off an elk. I've since switched to a folding Gerber Pack Saw, which is surprisingly light but strong. It comes with both a bone blade and a wood blade. If weight is not a concern, I like the good old Wyoming Saw . I have the leather sheath, but nylon models are lighter.
I can't talk about survival saws without mentioning the Pocket Chainsaw. It is a flexible metal-link saw blade that curls up into a palm-sized can. It has two finger rings, but I find it more comfortable to slide a stick through each to make T-handles. You wrap the blade around the back of a small tree and pump your arms back and forth, pulling toward you to cut through a six-inch-diameter pole in seconds. It is a definite kit-only item, but one I highly recommend.
Admittedly, I don't like the term. However, I could not avoid using it when evaluating the Tool Logic SL3. I've carried one in my personal kit ever since. The blade is substantial, and the handle is big enough for good control. Plus, it has a built-in whistle and a sealed compartment containing a flint firestarter rod. More of a kit knife than a primary hunting knife, it's well worth adding to any survival kit. Tool Logic has upgraded the basic design to include a metal body and a two-in-one LED flashlight/flint rod in the handle compartment.
I've always favored a six-inch flat diamond sharpener with folding handles, which permits a long sharpening stroke while keeping fingers and hand away from the knife blade. DMT makes a good one. Some nifty little carbide sharpeners have preset angles -- all you do is stroke the knife blade through the "V" sharpeners. The grips offer built-in finger protection. If you carry a hatchet, don't forget a small file for touch-up.