Having said all that, there are knife styles that almost everyone would agree aren't the best choice for wilderness survival. Let's review the attributes of these undesireable knives before we start on how to select the best knife.
Many knives promoted as "survival" knives are really designed as combat or military survival knives or weapons. The effectiveness of your knife against others is the very least of your concerns in a wilderness survival situation. Some of the attributes desired in a combat knife are diametrically opposed to the most desirable qualities of a general purpose wilderness survival knife.
Note, however, that there are some high quality benchmade and custom hollow handled knives available (Chris Reeve, for example, makes some exceptional hollow handle knives). These are made from a single piece of steel, making them very strong and perfectly acceptable. The practical aspects of the hollow handle for storing small items of survival equipment is still debatable. At least with the good ones, the hollow handle doesn't represent a liability, except for the potential extra weight, and what you store in it could be an asset, assuming you don't lose the knife.
As an aside, many sheaths also include a integral pouch. This can be used to store sharpening and survival equipment. It can be much easier to store items in that larger and generally more flexible pouch than the very small cavity of a hollow handled survival knife.
Many so-called survival knives embody wild designs created to appeal to irrational visceral emotions rather than the rational aspects of survival concerns. It may sell knives, but that's not the point. A good survival knife does not generally look particularly "wild" or "wicked." Many of these wild designs are ill suited for use by the typical survivor, either by design or quality or both. The ideal survival knife is generally an elegantly simple tool, though the materials can be exotic enough, if desired.
It almost goes without saying that a high quality knife is better than a lesser quality one that might leave you in the lurch. However, quality isn't, in and of itself, the most critical element, though a reasonable level of quality is essential. Even among the finest quality knives, many lack the features best suited for wilderness survival use. As with so many things, undeniably, any knife is better than no knife at all. We can, however, select a knife which will offer us the most functionality and reliability by dint of its design and construction.
The knife should incorporate a full tang (also referred to as a "one piece" or "integral" design") or full length internal tang (generally referred to as "narrow tang"). "Full tang" means the blade material becomes the handle, usually with scales (slabs or side pieces) attached to both sides for improved grip. Sometimes the flat tang is simply left bare, referred to as "skeletonized," in order to save weight and reduce bulk. Some purpose built survival knives have a hollow center in the flat full tang and/or cavities within the removable or hinged side pieces within which you can store additional survival equipment, an alternative to the traditional hollow handle concept.
"Full length internal or `narrow' tang" means the blade material is reduced in size as it enters the handle and extends up through the entire length of the handle or grip which surrounds it completely. If there is a Pommel or Butt Cap, it will be securely attached to the tang with a nut or be cast, pinned, brazed or welded on. The important point to remember is that the tang and the blade should be a single piece of steel. These full tangs are essential for maximum strength and utility.
There are few areas with regard to survival knives that elicit as much controversy as the length of the blade. Advocates of larger knives think that those who champion smaller blades, such as myself, are out of their minds. Likewise, the reverse is often true. For me, the deciding points are that a smaller blade is easier for the inexperienced user to work with and less dangerous in inexperienced hands, weighs less, a critical matter for pilots and many others, and is more versatile for the myriad of basic chores associated with a typical survival situation.
Those areas in which a larger knife excels, such as chopping branches and wood, are adequately handled by other means without the liabilities the large blade carries with it, in my opinion.
For experienced outdoorsmen, this controversy is entirely academic. They will have found what works best for them and have the experience to use it competently, small blade or large. Often, the choice is to simply carry two knives, each sized and optimized for its particular tasks. When you have to rely on a single blade which could end up being used by almost anyone, it pays to be conservative.
This leads to my recommendation that a survival knife should have a blade at least four inches long, but no longer than six inches, or there about. Many experienced woodsmen carry a knife about 4 inches long, give or take a little, for general purpose work (many also carry a second bigger knife, but the small knife is what is used for most chores). A survival knife can stand to be a bit longer, but not too much longer. You simply do not need an enormous blade for any job you will likely be faced with in the wilds. A little brain power will more than make up for any extra inches, without the problems inherent in trying to use a knife which is too damn big, especially for the inexperienced.
Now, if you're flying over the tropics, you would also want a machete or large bolo. This is really the only environment where such a large blade is an absolute necessary. However, this should be carried in addition to a basic survival knife.
(As noted, many prefer a larger survival knife than that discussed in depth here. While I prefer a smaller knife for the average person, especially the inexperienced, there are some advantages to a larger knife in some circumstances, for someone with the experience to use it safely and competently and if they also carry a small knife, be it fixed blade or a folder. We will take a look at larger knives suitable for survival use in an upcoming article.)
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