Some of the most contentious debates occur when people start asking questions that begin with, “what one gun … ” or “what one knife … ” and so on. Those kinds of questions get asked, no matter the type of avocation one might pursue, whether it’s about fishing rods or the best all-around lens for photography. For this article, we open things up a bit and discuss not one style—but the top eight styles—of knives for survivalists to have on hand if and when things go sideways in the world. However, a couple of complications arise when we consider that this topic deals with items on which your life may depend, along with the fact that there are a lot of opinions out there that accompany the vast array of available knife styles. But the best answer to the question regarding the best styles of knives to have at the ready will result naturally from looking at our daily lives.
You’d be surprised at the number of American kitchens that do not have a good set of kitchen knives—or an effective way to sharpen them. If the world does take a turn for the worse or something catastrophic happens, we’re not going to have easy access to takeout or microwave dinners. There will actually be more meal preparation taking place as we harvest our gardens and procure game.
I didn’t have a good set of kitchen knives until about two years ago. I never gave them a second thought and just used what I had on hand for what little meal prep I did. Nevertheless, they are a useful addition, whether you’re bugging in or taking the show on the road in a long-term survival scenario. Whether you’re carving meat, chopping and dicing vegetables, or slicing a fresh loaf of bread you’ve just baked, a quality set of kitchen knives will be required when KFC is no longer an option.
Yes—I’m going from one extreme to the other. A machete is an extremely versatile tool for easily clearing vegetation, doing light chopping on saplings, and cutting away overhead vines—whether you’re at home clearing out some light brush or bugging out on foot. It can be used to build a shelter or to dispatch a chicken for Sunday dinner. In many countries, the machete is used for just about all cutting and chopping needs and is a definite must-have blade for a survivalist of any kind.
When you start discussing hunting knives, you can quickly get into “fightin’ words” territory. As far as the definition goes, “hunting knives” probably have a larger variety of styles, blades, and steel types and handle more configurations than just about any other category—except maybe survival knives. In fact, you can use various knives from just about every other category, although the opposite is not true. After I did my research about hunting knives, it was clear that there doesn’t seem to be much consensus as to what constitutes this knife type. Some people are fans of drop-point blades and trailing-point blades.
Others like longer blades in the 5- to 6-inch range, and yet other people prefer shorter blades that are more maneuverable. Some people use folding knives for their cleaning and dressing chores. Fat-belly knives are popular for skinning, and narrow, thin blades are appreciated for their ability to work around bone. Essentially, a hunting knife is whatever knife works for you and allows you to efficiently skin and dress game properly for consumption. About the only real consensus I could find was that most people agreed hunting knives should be easy to sharpen in the field, and the handle should be “grippy” so it won’t slip when it’s wet with blood from a game animal.
Much like hunting knives, almost any decent fixed-blade knife could be called a survival knife … almost. A lot of people have strong opinions in this area, but for the sake of this article, I’ll share a few thoughts about what characteristics I think a survival knife should have. First, for a one-knife solution, I’m going to want something at least 3 ⁄ 16 -inch thick but would probably prefer 1 ⁄ 4 inch. Yes, ideally, knives should only be used for cutting, but in a true disaster situation, your knife might be the only tool you have, and you don’t know what you’ll need to use it for. Consequently, I would rather have something robust that can be used to cut, chop, hack, or pry—just in case. Second, I would want a drop-point or slight clip-point profile so it can be used as a hunting knife and also serve as an effective penetrator for defensive work.
I would also want a textured, no-slip grip area that’s large enough to provide control for different tasks and still be manageable in wet conditions. Finally, I would want one with a blade no shorter than 6 inches so it can be used for chopping and processing firewood. Off the top of my head, a couple of knives that fit this bill are the ESEE-6 and the Chris Reeve Pacific. The downfall for my survival knife preference is that its size makes it likely you won’t have it on you if an emergency occurs while you’re outside your home. Wearing it around all the time might tend to spook the natives, and it’s not very practical. However, there’s nothing preventing you from having such a tool where you live, in case you have the opportunity to plan ahead and can select that tool to go with you when you bug out or leave the house for a while.
It seems that just about every company has come out with its own version of a bushcraft knife in the past five years. Bushcraft has recently been a very popular topic among knife-owning outdoors enthusiasts. The definition of “bushcraft” can be quite elaborate, but suffice it to say, it is basically the ability to work with what nature provides in order to stay alive in the outdoors. The one thing that nature has plenty of is wood, and you can do just about anything with it you want: You can make a fire or tools (such as utensils or weapons); you can use what’s around you to make traps and snares; or just carve chess pieces to pass the time.
Some of these tasks entail precision work, so your knife must be very sharp and have a comfortable handle to allow for extended periods of use when carving or shaping wood. Bushcraft knife designs that have been around for hundreds of years are still popular with the purists, but even modern bushcraft knife models, albeit crafted of modern materials, show their roots via their styling and blade profiles. For example, traditional knives may use high-carbon steel for the blade and a round birch grip. A modern knife may have G-10 or carbon fiber grip scales with A2 or S90V for the blade. It doesn’t really matter which style is preferred, as long as it does the job and its user is proficient with its usage.
A pocket knife—most often a folding knife—is a handy, but not usually necessary, item to have with you on a regular basis. However, in a real emergency scenario, having one could be the difference between life and death. Aside from being a popular choice for hunters and as a go-to tool for everyday use, in a SHTF situation, your pocket knife may have to serve as a backup for your primary blade if it becomes lost or damaged.
For general, everyday use, just about any quality pocket knife will do. However, when times get rough, this might no longer be the case. You’ll want the best tool you can possibly have. Pocket knives that are more robust, have better lock work and materials, and require less maintenance will become an essential part of your daily carry, so don’t cut corners when selecting them.
There is a multitude of survival fishing kits and other tools (such as gill nets and speed hooks) to help you catch your dinner. However, I haven’t found many discussions on knife forums or survival/prepper boards about fillet knives. I guess they don’t have a lot of “sex appeal.” Nevertheless, they are vital tools for cleaning your catch after you’ve put all the kits and gear away. I’ll admit that I’m no real fisherman, but I’ve caught my share of fish using various methods and, without really trying, I’ve assembled a small collection of fillet knives based on the recommendations of others. Almost all far exceed my needs.
For instance, I have a couple of Dexter Russell fillet knives, along with a 30-year-old Marttiini Rapala fillet knife that still does an excellent job. The trick for this category is to have at least a couple of different sizes. Work with the fillet knives ahead of time to ensure they’re the right selections for you. Most folks don’t fish, but there might be a time when they’ll have to —and that would be exactly the wrong time to figure out what knives they need and how to use them.
Make no mistake: In a world gone bad, the average person isn’t going to bust out any major knife-fighting moves. Nevertheless, having a knife that’s capable of acting as a last- resort defensive tool is worth the time and effort to procure. In fact, certain products from the hunting knives and survival knives categories will work quite nicely. For example, the Chris Reeve Pacific would make an excellent survival knife while serving double duty as a defensive weapon.
Trained experts can inflict terrible damage with smaller, more specialized blades, but the average person doesn’t have that skill set, so go with what’s comfortable and doesn’t require extensive training in various techniques. In my opinion, a good choice would be a knife with a long enough cutting edge to make substantial slashing cuts and/or have a point profile that facilitates effective penetration. The down side of such a knife, however, is its size.
Some people prefer something a bit shorter for ease of carry/use. I would caution the user to practice with whatever knife they choose so they are comfortable with its handling characteristics and to make sure it performs as expected. In some instances, a smaller knife can be effective, because it can be more easily concealed and brought to bear in a surprise attack, but it might not be long enough to do real damage. It’s kind of like defensive shooting, where shot placement is everything.
Words to the wise
There’s a military axiom that basically states, “Two is one, and one is none.” That is, always have a backup—or five. Tools break, including knives. It’s always prudent to have multiple backups. If budget is an issue, purchase knives that will be functional for two or three different types of tasks. The categories discussed here should not be considered “scripture” regarding the best styles of knives, because everyone has their own opinion and experience.
However, the areas we’ve covered are ood starting points, especially for those who don’t own an assortment of blades that can fulfill various needs if they had to live off the grid. That’s the best I can offer; the rest is up to you. However, the sooner you get started finding your knives, the sooner you’ll have them on hand—if and when the time comes to use them.
Story by Garrett Lucas