A Schrade-Walden H-15.
I got my first knife for being the top student at my Kenpo dojo. It had an antler handle, a wicked point, and I have it to this day, 25 years later. I’ve never needed it or any of my others knives for an emergency, but I’ve been glad to have one with me innumerable times.
A knife is a must-have for bugging out, for an EDC kit, and in my opinion it’s simply the sort of thing everyone should always have. They’re essential tools for everyday life and in a pinch knives can be a lifesaver—and I don’t just mean in combat. Whether you’re cutting a seatbelt or performing a field tracheotomy, digging out splinters or trimming gauze, you need a dependable knife in the event of an emergency. In this letter, I’ll go over the basic two kinds of knives you should have as a minimum from a prepping perspective. I’ll tell you what to get, what to avoid, and how to care for it.
What I'm not going to talk about here is blade grind, the virtues of a spear point versus clip point, weight distribution, metal composition, and some other technical aspects that are important for experts but not important for us today. What I'll provide here are good, general guidelines for utilitarian knives. I don’t think you’re here for a dissertation, and I’m not here to give one. For a more in-depth talk, I found Knife Informer to be just as informative as you’d expect a site named such to be.
Your Starting Point
I talked a little bit about what you want to have in an EDC kit and bugout bag, and those are solid guidelines to start with. Here we’ll dissect the differences between the two knives you should have in your possession. Again, this is the bare minimum for prepping, and you shouldn't be counting kitchen knives anymore. Redundancy is your friend in an emergency, so I recommend that you have more than literally two knives tucked away for a rainy day.
People in the know might think I mean fixed blade here, and I do not. I don’t want you to associate that term with your future knife when full-tang assures it’s a fixed blade and guarantees extra durability. A full-tang means that the knife in question is made up of one piece of metal, from blade to handle. The handle may be bolstered with wood, rope, or plastic for ergonomics, but the core of the knife is of one piece. A fixed blade knife is not necessarily full tang, and a full-tang knife is vastly more durable than a partial-tang. This knife is your workhorse: whittle, butcher, split kindling, cut rope, basically whenever you need one thing to become two or more things, this knife is here for you.
The knife should be somewhat long—around 10 inches is good (that's total, not the length of the blade alone). It should have a square, broad spine (the non-blade side), and a sturdy, beveled point. Avoid bells and whistles; this knife should be simple, strong, and sharp.
The knife at the top of this page is an old Schrade-Walden. It's a full-tang with leather handle, like the classic Marine Ka-Bar. It was my grandfather's knife, and is currently in retirement, but aside from being a little wobbly and a little thin, it’s a perfectly acceptable knife for our purposes.
Here are a couple acceptable (modern) models:
- Ka-Bar Becker: ($88) No-nonsense, extremely durable.
- Gerber StrongArm: ($55) Another no-nonsense blade, a bit on the cheaper side.
Do Not Get: My current bugout knife, the Winchester Bowie ($30). It’s basically a sword, and is made of stainless steel, which is a bit weak for a workhorse. Looks awesome, will scare people, but will not stand up to a beating. I will likely be grabbing that Ka-Bar or another model soon.
Kershaw Leek, open and closed. Note the button on the bottom of the 2nd picture, and the locking mechanism on the right.
Your folding knife is where you can theoretically go wild, though I'm going to recommend a limited style. There are two qualities you want in your folding knife: portability (it should be concealable) and dependability (it shouldn't be hard to open, get caught when you pull it out, or fall apart after a couple uses). I insist on two features for my folding knife: a clip so that I’m not digging for it in my pocket and spring-assisted opening so I’m not fumbling to open the blade when I most need it. This is also how you get out of carrying a literal switchblade, which is considered an “automatic” knife—press a button and the blade pops out. On a spring-assisted knife, you have to apply pressure.
Your folding knife should be smaller than your full-tang, maxing out at about 7 inches with the blade extended. Druthers are that all components be metal, because you’re going to be lacking the full-tang’s inherent durability. You won’t be doing any hard labor with this knife—it’s for soft work, whether that be opening boxes, cutting an apple, or skinning a rabbit.
Below are my three picks, largely of a kind but ranging in price.
- Kershaw Leek ($65): My EDC knife. It’s quick as hell to open, slim, and sturdy for a folding knife. I love mine. Buy this unless it’s too expensive.
- Kershaw Cryo ($25): Another Kershaw assisted opening knife. A shorter, angular blade on this one that lends it a futuristic look that shouldn’t do you any harm. If you’re just starting out and don’t have any preferences, this may be the way to go.
- CRKT Endorser ($40): Just to show you other brands exist, CRKTs are reliable, good-looking knives. The Endorser is spring-assisted like the above knives and has a grooved handle, which can assist with grip.
What to Avoid
Flashy, gas station knives. Knives meant for fighting. Overly large or small knives. Knives you buy at the mall. Knives with extravagant crossguards. Knives with handles made of weird materials. Knives with hollow handles for storing matches, fishing line, hooks, etc. Your knife is its own discrete tool, and weakening it to fit other tools makes it less useful. You’ll be glad your knife has matches up until it stops being a knife because the handle broke. I see a lot of “survival tools” in general that are twenty things at once and I am suspicious of them being useful as any.
If it looks a little boring, it’s probably okay. If it looks like it’s the ultimate weapon for your character in Final Fantasy, avoid it.
The Care and Feeding of Knives
There are two things we’ll worry about when it comes to keeping your knife in shape: sharpening and corrosion prevention.
A typical whetstone, fine-grit side up. Note the brownish stain—that’s rust, and does not affect the stone or knives you will sharpen on it.
It’s important to remember that keeping your knife sharp not only keeps it in good working order, but it makes you less likely to injure yourself. The more force you use to cut something because the blade is dull, the more likely you are to unpredictably make the cut and follow through before you can stop the motion.
I’m not great at sharpening knives, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. Despite that, I can adequately type out what needs to be done.
- Using a whetstone like this one, hold the coarser side up, and place the blade edge-down on the stone at a very thin angle—about one knife-thickness above the plane of the stone.
- There are schools of motion for the pass you take along the whetstone, but the simplest and most consistent is circular. With the blade facing away from you, stroke the blade along the stone in a clockwise fashion. Then, with it facing toward you, counterclockwise. Ensure even, firm contact with the stone at all times, and be sure to use the same number of rotations on each side and portion of the blade.
- Run water over the stone and knife to wash away removed metal.
- Repeat with the finer side of the stone.
Depending on how dull your knife is, you may need quite a few passes. I usually work in around twenty for both sides of the blade, and both sides of the whetstone. You will be able to feel the progress—a dull knife, or a nick in the blade, will catch and make a different sound and sensation across the whetstone. As the knife sharpens, and the nick is worn out, you’ll know.
With all my attempts at sharpening, I’ve never been able to achieve that “shave the hair off your arm” sharpness, but you might be able to. I test my knives by peeling a thin layer off the back of my thumbnail with the blade. If it does so easily, I’ve sharpened the blade sufficiently. Don’t worry about having the sharpest-ever knife—I get by with mine, even though I couldn’t shave with them.
With all my knives and metal tools and all their uses over the years, the only thing I’ve ever had rust is my ax, because I keep it in the garage and I don’t bother meticulously cleaning it. The secret to keeping my knives rust-free is simply that I clean and dry them after use. When I am working on something gross or food-related, as that tends to mean acids are involved, I use a little soap and water, tamp dry on a towel. That’s it. Don’t put your knife away wet, and if it’s soiled, clean it off.
There are knives out there that benefit from a very thin coating of oil, as most metal instruments can. The oil provides a buffer between the metal and corrosives, keeping the potential for rust to a minimum. I’ve never bothered with it myself, but, again, it’s certainly something to try if, say, you live in a harsh environment.
If you ran through and purchased what’s in this newsletter, you’d be dropping a pretty penny. I know money is hard to come by, and the materials I recommend tend not to be the cheapest. My recommendation if you can’t afford them is to have something. Even if that is just a purloined kitchen knife, you’ll do better with something than nothing.
The knives above are good investments when you’re able. A good tool, cared for, will have a long, useful life, such that eventually you’ll forget you ever bought it, and forget the days you didn’t have it. That’s far preferable to being caught unprepared.