Knives are the must-have tool that still holds the rugged romance of the outdoors. Holding a knife in your hand makes you feel powerful. It is a tool that can help you build a shelter, prepare food, or build a fire. That being said there a wide variety of knife styles that all serve different purposes and will be more or less functional in a variety of situations.
This two-part guide takes a general overview of common knife types and their uses in an outdoor setting. This is by no means a comprehensive guide and you will find links to additional resources that consider each knife type in more detail.
As romanticized as the knife has become among outdoors people, remember that it is first and foremost a tool. Always keep in mind what works for one person in the natural environment they find themselves in, may not work for you and the environment you are likely to find yourself in. Always purchase the tool appropriate for your needs.
The first half of this guide will focus on larger blades meant for clearing brush, preparing firewood, constructing a shelter, and preparing hunting and fishing game. The second part of this guide will take a closer look at everyday carry blades like pocket knives, boot knives, and multifunctional tools.
- Before you buy any blade, understand what your primary uses of that blade will be. This will help you determine which features are must-haves and what features are nice to have.
- Fixed blades are stronger and more durable, but often heavier than a folding knife.
- Folding knives are convenient and lightweight but may break with heavy use. They are more likely to fail in heavy use situations. Ideal for lighter, everyday use.
- A full, rat-tail, or stick tang is ideal for a stronger, more durable knife. However, the more tang present in a blade the more weight will be added.
- Serrated blades are better for cutting through fiber and thin metal, but a straight-edge blade will be much easier to sharpen without specialized tools.
- Straight edge blades are a much more versatile blade and can be used for a wider range of tasks.
- When possible, use the appropriate knife for the task at hand. Don’t destroy your survival blade batoning firewood if you have a hatchet or saw available. And don’t use a huge bowie knife for detail-oriented carving.
- Stainless steel will hold up better under damp or wet conditions.
- Carbon steel blades will remain sharper but if not properly cared for can rust and become compromised.
- The length of the blade will be determined by use, but a medium-sized blade, between 6” and 12”, will work for a variety of uses.
The survival knife is a popular general-purpose outdoor knife. Survival knives are meant to be durable, heavy use blades and a full tang, or a rat-tail tang is highly recommended. Not only will the tang make your blade stronger, but if the handle of your blade happens to break the tang can be wrapped in paracord or leather and still be perfectly functional. A partial tang or a hollow body knife will likely be too dangerous to use if the handle fails.
While survival blades come in both fixed blade options and folding options a fixed blade is generally recommended for heavy use survival knives. A folding blade is inherently weak at the folding mechanism. It is also impossible for a folding blade to have the recommended full tang or rat-tail tang. We recommend folding knives or pocket knives as a light use everyday carry later in this post.
Serration is another personal choice you will have to make in regards to your survival knife. Serration is useful if you think you will be cutting a lot of fibrous materials such as rope and paracord. That being said, a straight edge knife can still cut through rope and is generally considered a more versatile blade style. Another consideration to keep in mind is sharpening your knife. A serrated blade will always need to be sharpened with a special sharpening tool, whereas a straight edge can be sharpened with a variety of tools including something as simple as a smooth stone.
Generally, we recommend against saw spines on survival knives. A saw spine makes it impossible to use the survival blade to baton and it generally weakens the blade overall. Instead, we recommend a flat ground spine.
Hunting knives are a specialized tool for skinning and dressing game. The specific type of hunting blade you choose will be based on what type of animal you expect to be hunting.
Of special consideration when buying a hunting knife is the grip of the handle and the hand guard. Skinning and dressing game meat will be messy and your knife and hands will quickly become wet and slippery. It is therefore crucial that no matter what type of hunting knife you choose the handle of the knife is ergonomic and made of a non-slip material.
While a fixed blade is not technically necessary for a hunting knife, be prepared to spend a little extra time cleaning a folding blade. You’ll want to carefully clean your blade after each use to eliminate the possibility of bacteria buildup on your blade. This is easier to accomplish with a fixed blade, but with a little care, you can still properly clean a folding blade.
This article by Knife Depot explores hunting knife features in-depth.
A fillet knife is a special tool typically used when removing skin, bones, and entrails from fish but can also be useful in cleaning other types of game. Fillet knives are thin and flexible and easy to maneuver. The length of your fillet blade will depend on the size of your fish or game. In-Fisherman takes a detailed look at what features to look for in a great fillet blade.
Most legal folding knives are either a two-hand or single-hand opening knife. As you can likely guess, a two-handed knife is opened by holding the handle of the blade in one hand and opening the blade by grasping the spine and unfolding the knife. A single-hand opening knife can be opened by holding the knife in your hand and using your thumb to swivel the knife open. The two-handed style is a traditional style of folding knife while the single-handed folding knife is a popular choice as it allows for the user to keep their other hand free.
Automatic open knives, also known as switchblades, spring open automatically and can be used with only one hand. This style of blade has been outlawed in many states. You may also encounter an assisted open knife which was developed as a workaround for the ban on automatic open knives. These knives are partially opened manually at which point a spring activates to finish popping the knife open fully.
Once you have your knife open you’ll encounter three common locking mechanisms, a liner lock, a frame lock, and a lock back. Be aware that not all folding knives have a locking mechanism. Lockbacks are the more traditional locking mechanism and are released by pressing into a recessed section of the knife, often along the spine of the knife, to release the lock at which point the blade can be folded closed. These locks are typically very sturdy and can often require two hands to close the blade. The frame lock and the liner lock are designed for easier one-handed use. In a frame lock design, the frame of the blade handle will snap inwards to lock the blade. A liner lock is similar but instead of the entire frame locking the blade in place a section of an inner lining snaps inwards to lock the blade. The liner lock is a fairly common, affordable folding blade lock mechanism.
This image is courtesy of the fantastic article written up by Iron and Tweed on pocket knife features.
While a foldable saw is not a must-have it can be a very useful device if you expect to be processing a lot of wood. Many foldable saws have specialty uses, such as cutting through ice, which could be useful in constructing an igloo or for fishing in an iced-over pond.
Saws, like most of the knives in this list, should be chosen based on the task you will most likely use them for. Different teeth patterns will be useful in different circumstances. Skilled Survival goes into detail regarding teeth shape, push vs pull saws, and carry weights.
Hatchets are another specialized type of blade that is nice to have but may add too much weight to your pack to be worth the carry. Hatchets are highly efficient at processing wood and the back of a hatchet can be used as a hammer to drive stakes into the ground.
Another unique use blade is a machete. While machetes have a reputation for being a tropical knife, they are commonly used to help clear brush or cut trails. Many outdoor people use them to efficiently clear brush away from a fishing spot or a campground. While not as efficient as some other tools on this list, machetes can be used to chop wood and fell trees. The Machete Specialist has provided an informative guide that will help you understand if a machete is an appropriate tool for you.
Choose a Blade for Your Needs
Remember, what works for one person may not work for another. Be mindful of the environment you expect to be in and the tasks you expect to perform and choose the blade that will be the most efficient for that task. What may be the perfect everyday carry for one person may not be functional at all for another person.
For specific information on blade shapes, materials, weights, densities, and size we recommend a highly informative Instructable Article: https://www.instructables.com/How-to-Choose-the-Right-Survival-Knife/
REI also has a useful article with blade feature specifics:
If you have any specific questions not addressed in this article or in any of the references provided, please reach out to us at info@Prepared4X.com and we will either address your question directly or develop a more specific blog post as needed. We are always looking for feedback on the type of information you find useful and we hope you’ll consider connecting with us on our Facebook and Instagram pages @Prepared4X.