Is there any cooler item of outdoors gear than a big, fixed-blade knife? Or a more misunderstood one? Let's look at what you actually use them for and how to do so.
Since Rambo's up top, let's start with some common big knife misconceptions: They're not for killin' people or animals, those saws on the back don't work (and actually weaken the knife) and you don't want one of those nifty hollow-handled ones with a compass and fishing kit or whatever inside.
What a big knife actually is, is a convenient, multi-purpose tool for the outdoors that can perform the tasks of several larger, more specialized tools, but can be worn on the hip, making it much easier to carry than, say, an axe.
Let's be clear, we're talking about fixed-blade knives here. It may sound counterintuitive, but fixed blades are safer than their folding counterparts. That's because they're enormously strong and will never fold back on you, cutting your fingers and hands. That strength and simplicity — no moving parts — also makes them ideal for use outdoors. Folders all use complicated mechanisms that can become jammed with dirt or rust if exposed to water. A good fixed blade will outlive you and its design means it just can't fold back on your hands.
I'm a big knife fan, not because I'm over-compensating or carry fantasies of fighting a mountain lion with one. I like big knives because they can process firewood, help with food preparation and make it easy to start a fire.
By holding a big knife against the piece of wood you want to cut, then pounding on it with another piece of wood, you can quickly and easily chop or split surprisingly large logs. This is what I most commonly use my knives for and it's called batoning. A knife doesn't perform this task better than an axe or hatchet or saw, but it is easier to carry and multi-use.
A long, flat knife blade is also great for flipping strips of carne asada or tortillas as they cook over an open flame. The knife handle can be used to lift a hot kettle or pot off a fire without burning your hands. It can't do that stuff as well as a spatula, but again, it's easy to carry and can do other stuff.
Combined with a ferro-rod and a Vaseline-soaked cottonball or two, it can also start a fire. Even in the rain, even if your lighter's out of fuel, even if it's cold. It's actually better at doing so than a lighter and commercial fire starters, again in a package that's easily carried and can contribute to all the other stages of fire making.
I also typically use mine as a hammer, pounding in tent pegs, as a cutting tool (obviously) and in the making of temporary shelters or to protect food from animals. Bending over a tall sapling, trimming a branch into a hook and hanging your bear bag from it is as effective and convenient a method for keeping critters out of your food as I've found.
The longer a knife is, the larger a piece of wood it can span. A decent knife can split a log nearly as effectively as an axe, in a much smaller, multi-use package.
Stuff You Can Use A Big Knife For
Tool Making: Please don't ever tie your knife onto a stick and call it a spear. Not only are you relying on a knot you tied to not fail, but you're using your primary tool in a manner that will likely cause it to be lost or damaged. Instead, split the end of a long, inch-thick branch into four parts, insert small sticks into the gaps and secure those with cordage. At this point, pretend you're Meera from Game of Thrones. Use your new four-pointed spear to stab or snare fish and other small animals like frogs in and around water. Those are your most-likely source of food in a survival scenario. A big, long stick with a pointy end is also a far more effective self defense weapon than a little knife that allows your opponent to get close to you. You can also make snares and fish hooks and tent pegs and whatever else you might want to whittle.
Wood Processing: Using a wood baton, place the knife against a dead, standing tree and proceed to cut it down. Do the same to cut your new log into sections and the same again to split those sections down the middle into small, useable pieces of firewood. Know the stuff you buy for your fireplace? Make it look like that. In extreme cold or wet conditions, you'll find usably dry firewood in the center of dead, standing trees.
Fire Starting: You're not going to get a fire started with a bow and drill. I only ever managed once, after half an hour of trying, in perfect, controlled conditions during a class when I was a Boy Scout. But, if you packed a ferro rod, you suddenly have a source of super-hot sparks that can never run out of fuel, never break and never be effected by weather. Bonus points for packing a supply of Vaseline-soaked cottonballs to use as tinder. They deliver a reliable four-inch high flame for a solid two-minutes no matter the weather. And they're waterproof.
Digging: Ideally, don't do this. But, if you didn't pack your little orange plastic shovel, then a big knife can excavate an edible root or dig up worms for bait or make a hole to poop in almost as well.
Hitting Stuff: Leave it in the sheath and hit stuff with the pommel (base of the handle) or handle. Makes a pretty good hammer if you've got to drive a stake or crack a nut or drive a nail.
Shelter Making: Making your own shelter is actually pretty easy and can be very effective if done right. I've slept in ones of my own construction a number of times and even have a merit badge proclaiming the ability to do so. We'll cover that topic some other time, but suffice it to say that you'll want to cut some branches and a big knife can do that.
Rescuing People: A good quality knife will smash a car window or even cut through the thin metal of a car door. It'll also cut a seatbelt. I've used mine for just this, freeing a drunk redneck from this mess of a "favorite truck" after he rolled it off a cliff. Dumbass.
Crappy acting, crappier knives.
Stuff You Don't Want To Use A Big Knife For
Fighting: Real combat knives sold to real military types tend to have blade lengths of between four and six inches or are smaller, more quickly deployed karambits. A big, hefty knife is slow to swing, slow to change direction and no more stabby than something smaller. Plus, you don't know what you're doing and will likely have your knife taken from you and used against you. Knife fighting is just a bad idea in general because it allows your opponent to get within easy striking distance before you can do anything about it. Instead, grab a big stick and hold the animal or idiot off with it. A whack to the head will stop someone much faster than a stab will.
Hunting/Skinning: The unwieldy size of a big knife, their girth and weight all combine to make them a non-ideal tool for carefully removing guts or skin or cutting through joints. Most hunters I know shop the bargain bin at Cabela's, picking out cheap folders and using them until they're dull, then throw them out. A small knife is just that much better for detail work.
Poking or Prying Things: The steel knives are made out of is made to be strong in one direction. That direction is not sideways; don't pry with one. Poking is also a bad idea, mostly because you're absolutely going to damage the tip and also likely slide your hand down the handle, onto the blade, cutting yourself. If you really need to cut into a can or something else, hold the knife to the thing, then hit the top with a piece of wood. Never stab it into stuff.
Throwing: Really? You saw it in a movie once and think this is going to happen? You'll just miss, damage or lose your knife and feel like an idiot.
What To Look For In A Big Survival Knife
Fixed Blade: Folders clog, break and accidently fold. They're just a pain in the ass.
Full Tang: You want the full size and thickness of a knife blade to carry through the handle. The knife shouldn't be stuck into a handle, the handle should be bolted to the outside of the tang. No weak points equals a strong blade. The tank should protrude from the rear of the handle, creating a striking surface.
Steel: Look for a high carbon steel. It'll rust if it's not maintained, but will also be far easier to sharpen and maintain than a harder, stainless steel. In my experience, 1095 carbon steel, with a good heat treat, is damn near indestructible, but also quick and easy to sharpen.
No Serrations: Supposedly there to cut cordage, serrations are really just for tacticool looks. They're impossible to sharpen and a nicely sharpened straight edge is just as effective at cutting rope.
Sheath: A knife is only as good as your ability to carry it. The best sheaths are made from Kydex, a heat-molded plastic that retains the blade by pressing shut over its top. Leather sheaths can foster corrosion and nylon sheaths are just bullshit. If you find a knife you love, but it comes with a bad sheath, have a better one custom made. You want a sheath that carries the knife below your belt, a protruding pommel can damage organs or break ribs in a fall.
Flat Top: Double edged daggers and saw teeth might look cool, but they do nothing. A flat top to the blade creates a good striking surface for batoning and a 90-degree edge is perfect for striking a ferro rod. The simpler the overall shape, the fewer cutouts, the stronger the knife. Strong = good.
Drop Point: You want a simple, drop-point knife (pictured). Then, you can drill with the tip, which is enormously strong without compromising the cutting geometry of the edge. Other blade shapes have their purposed on smaller knives, but are less than ideal here.
Handle: You want a nice, comfortable, rounded handle made from something that gives you good grip even if your palms or sweaty or you're working around water. You'd be amazed how quickly an uncomfortable knife will give you blisters. A choil and jimping will help you choke up on the blade for detail work.
Size: This is a matter of personal taste. Most people will be fine with a four-inch blade, I prefer a six-inch and many people like to go larger. Just think about how the knife will be carried and what it will be used for and chose the length accordingly. A knife you have on you more often is a better knife.
Features: There should be no features. No compass, no storage, no beer opener. It's all bullshit. A knife has a wide range of capabilities due to its strength and your skills.
Drop point? Check. Flat grind? Check. Full tang? Check. Exposed pommel? Check. Comfy handle? Check. The ESEE-6 pushes all the right buttons.
So what knife do I recommend? Well, personally, I carry an ESEE-6. For me, it's the right compromise between capability and carry ability and its linen micarta handle spoils my hands. But, it's big. Most people would be best served starting out with an ESEE-4 (what Tim Ferris carries) or, if you're on a budget, the $13 Mora Clipper will do 90 percent of what those bigger knives will. Whatever you get, go out and use it and learn what it can do. If it can't do what you want, figure out why and do better next time. Want to sharpen it? Spyderco Sharpmaker, hands down.
What knife do you carry in the outdoors?
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.