One of the biggest unwritten rules I’ve realized when it comes to wilderness survival is that the rules themselves are region-specific. And by that, I mean literally everything- from your equipment preparations to knowledge of the flora and fauna all change depending on the environment. And that very much applies to edged tools as much as it does clothing and footwear. There is no one size fits all approach, but there are certain tools that fit environments far better than others, especially when it comes to knife selection.
The topic of blades can be polarizing- there’s well versed bushcraft and survival instructors who advocate small knives, usually as part of a system with an ax, the military approach that normally favors a mid sized, 4-7 inch blade, and then there’s those that prefer machetes and large knives. All Rambo joking aside, there’s several great advantages to using a big blade, especially in my own environment in the southeastern US. You have to carry the right tool for the job at hand, and at least here, with a mix of thick deciduous and pine forests, a large knife works well for a great number of survival tasks. When paired with a smaller blade, anybody faced with an extended stay in the wild won’t have much trouble fulfilling the two basic needs you’ll need a knife for- fire and shelter.
Machetes are usually thought of as a jungle tool. They’re as common as a hammer in Central and South America and are very much a part of everyday life for farmers. Usually made of mild carbon steel and a low hardness, they’re made for cutting leafy vegetation and easily being repaired when dented or dinged. Because of the low hardness I’ve rarely seen a decent machete like a Tramontina chip- the edge will normally just roll. They also don’t tend to hold an edge for long when cutting more dense plants. For that, you’ll need a slightly thicker and harder blade.
The environment type here in NC is not unlike what we had in Hawaii when I was stationed there. The vegetation was thick and hard, sorta like what’s in the Appalachians. Some of my Filipino buddies from back in those days told me that’s a lot like it is outside Manila. And that was the first time I saw and got hands on with a Parang and what they called a Bolo knife. Thicker than a common machete I had grown up seeing, cutting trails for pig hunting was quick and easy and the blades never seemed to need much touching up. One swing, more like a snap of the wrist at a 45 degree angle, and those ironwood limbs were down. The weight of the blade does most of the work and the thickness and grind pushes the limb out. Since then though, out here, I’ve come to favor blades with a bit more point on the end for a number of reasons, mainly to choke up on the blade to use it for smaller tasks and to stab it into dead evergreens to pry out fat wood for tinder.
Aside from quick clearing of trails, large knives favor a number of other survival tasks. Building a ridgepole for a shelter and cutting the limbs to frame up a roof is fast and easy. Yeah, the knife is a bit heavier, but you’ll be putting in less work with a more efficient blade. Other tasks are made easier as well, like using it as a draw knife for making a lot of tinder shavings efficiently.
I can mass produce spears and frog gigs with almost no effort, letting the weight of the blade do most of my work. I can also use a large blade to effectively and efficiently batton through wood, allowing me to get to the dry tinder on the insides. While some never advocate doing that because of the stress it can put on the blade, I feel its a critical task if you’re considering a blade for survival use.
Its not that other tools can do the same tasks- with a little ingenuity they definitely can. A hatchet or Tomahawk is an incredibly versatile tool especially when paired with a smaller knife and I tend to have at least a folder on my body at all times. But these days I tend to favor my large blades over most of my other tools when I’m expecting to hit the woods for a while. And of those, I have a couple of choices I tend to favor more than most.
In a large blade there’s two qualities I think are absolutely necessary at least in my experience. The first is that the blade is really no thicker than 3/16 of an inch. I’ve got a couple large knives that are 1/4 inch thick, and while they’re bombproof pieces of steel, especially the Ranger RD7, they get HEAVY for what they are. 3/16 is more manageable and won’t make you feel like you’re humping a combat load on your hip. In my experience you’re not giving up much in durability by having a slimmer knife. So unless I plan on doing a lot of prying and breaching, the sharpened prybars stay home. The other quality I feel is a requirement is that they’re made of high carbon steel. 1095 tempered by Rowen for ESEE is a great choice, as is Condor’s 1075 and the 5160 Ontario runs in the RTAK II and Ranger RD series blades. High carbon is great for survival because its very easy to maintain in the field and it strikes a ferro rod for firemaking.
So while I’ve heard the old saying “the bigger the knife, the larger the fool”, I don’t think it really applies in a lot of cases. I mean we’ve all seen idiots with huge sawback blades thinking they’ll conquer the wild, and they live up to the reputation, but a big blade in the right hands is a heck of a tool. Large blades have tons of practical uses and it really depends on your environment and really what works for you. While I’m not a big believer in the whole one tool option thing, and I’ve always got at least one smaller knife to cover fine work, but at the end of the day it’s all about what gives us the most uses in the most situations. And a big knife brings a lot to the table.
At least where I am.