26 Survival Uses for a Knife

by Nick

A survival knife is probably the single most versatile tool in your BOB, INCH or GO bag, but did you know quite how much you could do with it? Here are 25 different functions of any good survival knife.

Caveat: you shouldn’t do most of these unless you really have to, as you’ll damage the knife. An alternative would be to have a cheaper back-up knife in your BOB that you can use.

1) Cutting Stuff to Size

Probably the most obvious use for a knife, a knife cuts things up. Tarps, blankets, ropes and cords, shoelaces etc. For thicker thicker stuff (e.g. composite ropes, heavy canvas) you want a serrated knife with a wide blade, like a rigger’s or sailor’s knife. For really delicate things like sewing threads use the tip of a finer knife for precision.

2) Fell Trees

With a big enough knife, and enough time, you can fell a small tree. Carve two V-shaped notches in opposing sides of the trunk, with the one on the side you want the tree to fall towards being slightly lower. The notches should go about a third of the way through the trunk, then just push the tree over in the right direction.

3) Split Wood

If you don’t have an axe a large knife will do the trick for small logs for the fire. You will need a strong knife with a relatively wide spine. It’s length should be at least one and a half times the diameter of the logs you expect to split.

Ideally you should split wood on a chopping log, a thick log with the end grain uppermost. If this is not available a large flat rock will do, but will blunt the edge of your knife faster. If no good chopping block can be found, hard ground is preferable to soft, and try to clear away any small stones which could splinter your knife edge.

Stand up the piece of wood to split vertically in front of you. Place the blade of knife, using the part nearest the handle, straight across the diameter of the wood. Take a large wooden billet (a big heavy stick) and use it’s weight (not swinging it) to tap the knife into the wood, similar to making a pilot hole.

Make sure the knife is vertical and square to the wood then bring down the billet, straight and hard onto the spine of the knife, directly above the log, driving it down through the wood. It probably won’t split the log all the way down (especially if you are splitting close-grained hardwood).

To finish the split. Lean some of your body weight on the knife handle and bring the billet down again on the spine of the knife which should be poking out of the opposite side of the log. Hitting this side of the knife will have a ‘lever’ effect (tilting the knife through the split, rather than lengthening it) unless you counter it with your body weight. Continue until the log is split, then split down each part to the right size.

Small split battens make ideal blanks for feather sticks., larger ones are good for shelter building.

4) Hammer

A heavy knife can be used as a hammer. Folding knives actually end to be better for this because the mechanism, blade and handle together are very heavy. Hold the handle with the knife closed and use the butt of the knife. The same grip can be used with a fixed blade, but the blade should be sheathed if possible to protect your hand.

5) Pry Bar

Any knife with a flat blade can be used to pry things open, like opening tin cans without a can opener or pulling nails out. Whenever possible use the spine of the knife rather than the blade and the blade rather than the point. Some knives come with a wide ‘chisel tip’ blade specifically for prying (often ‘wrecking’ knives and diver’s knives).

6) Screwdriver

You can use a knife as a screwdriver. This will probably blunt your knife and can damage the tip, but it’s faster than making a tool from wood or bone, and you might not have anything else to hand. Use the knife blade-downwards (towards the screw)  because if you slip while putting pressure on it to tighten a screw  you want to hit the spine (which is blunt) not the edge.

7) Make Tools

Knowing how to use your knife to full effect is great, but a specialized tool is often better. Tools for almost any application can at least be improvised with the help of a knife. For food, good fishing hooks can be carved from wood or bone. A stick carved to a chisel point becomes a screwdriver or a scraper for tanning hide, and of course a knife is needed for making the ultimate survival tool, a bow.

8) Close Quarters Combat

You might not be the only large mammal around in a survival situation. An angry bear is just as dangerous (and likely to sneak up in the night) as a human, so be ready. With the right training even a bunt Swiss Army Knife is much better than nothing (Steve Tarabi and Raymond Floro both teach good training systems).

That said, a larger knife (a bowie or parang) will be better for fighting, and if you really think it likely you will need it, a specialised fighting knife. There are really only two options : a karambit (which necessitates learning a whole new approach to knife fighting, but is very effective) or a Fairbairn-Sykes (a straight bladed double edge knife designed specifically for military use).

9) Ranged weapon (throwing knife)

If you can it someone before they even get you, so much the better. Yes there are specialised throwing knives out there, but any knife can be thrown accurately with practice. Before training, try balancing your knife on your finger at the point where the handle meets the blade. Whichever end swings up (the lighter end), grip that when throwing. So if you have a long knife with a very heavy blade, hold the handle and vice versa. Balanced knives can be thrown from either end.

10) Spear

A knife lashed to the end of a stick becomes a spear. For all hunting, but especially for fishing, a spear with some kind of hook or barb will make a world of difference, so having a hunting knife with a gut hook is preferable. If this is your only knife then it will also help with gutting fish later for the fire.

11) Skinning and Dressing Game

Unless you’re feeling truly wild you’ll want to dress any game you kill. The best dressing knives come with a gut hook inthe back of the blade, and with practice one motion can open up the belly, then remove the guts on the backstroke.

You don’t need to learn dressing methods for each individual animals you my come across. Dressing a rabbit is very similar to a hare or a squirrel, but a turkey needs plucking and fishing need descaling. Most big (bears, deer etc.) are different again and each part has a different use. In a survival situation knowing how to make thread from sinews and guts or tan a hid can make life a lot easier when your equipment needs repair.

12) Clearing a Path

This one also needs a big blade to do easily. Machete and Kuri knife designs evolved specifically for the big swinging motion needed to clear a path through dense undergrowth quickly.

13) Debarking Trees

Tree bark (especially that of birch and palm) can be useful in a survival situation for making containers (and even canoes!). Bark should be harvested in the spring time, when the sap is rising so it will be easier to ‘peel’.

Using a sharp knife, make a vertical incision in the tree, dig your fingers under it and push them under the bark, peeling it off. Around the tree, to eventually meet the incision again. It should pop off like a roll of wrapping paper.

A large section of a tree with no branches can even be completely debarked in a spiral if you need long strips for weaving or boat building.

14) As a speil (Tapping for sap)

From mid spring to mid fall the sap rises the trees and can be a great source of hydration or just a sweetener for trail meals. A surprising number of trees can be tapped: most species of maple (the sugar maple is the best), Box Elder, Gorosoe, Black and White Walnuts, Sycamore and all species of Birch. Do your research as different species are best tapped at different times of year

There are two methods for tapping. For the ‘trunk’ method: Use the tip of your knife to cut an incision, angled at about 45° upwards into the trunk of the tree, then stick your knife into the cut blade first, so that the flat of the blade is horizontal. Put a container below the end of the handle and wait.

The other method is less invasive. Cut off the end of a branch at an angle (ideally a fairly large, healthy branch, low down the tree) and place a container underneath it. Neither method is quick, but the ‘trunk’ way is probably a little faster and can be performed within a slightly longer period of the year.

15) Open Cans

This can be a very dangerous procedure (open tin can ids can be very sharp and serious cuts on your fingers are the last thing you want in a survival situation!). That said, if you lose your an opener, you can use a knife with a decent point.

Make sure your can sits on a flat, stable surface. Place the tip of the knife at the inside edge of the lid, where the blade of a can opener would normally go. Hold it vertically in your strong hand and smack your other hand down on the butt. This should make a small cut through the seam. Move the knife around the rim, to just past the end of the cut you just made made. Repeat, making another cut. Reperat all the way around the rim, then use the tip as a pry bar to lever up the lid, which should now be free.

16) Digging

In a pinch, a flat blade is better than nothing for digging. This will blunt you’re blade and almost certainly break the tip off your knife, but if you really need to it works.

17) Eating and Cooking Utensil

If you want to pack really light you don’t really need to pack a knife fork and spoon. So long as your knife can cut food up small enough to pick up with your hands, your good, and a flat bladed knife makes a good cooking spatula if need be.

18) Stake (or making stakes)

If you run out of tent pegs a knife will do for a night. Make sure to push the knife into the ground with the blade edge facing the tent, otherwise it will just cut the guyline or groundsheet when any force is applied. Although this will work in an emergency, using the knife to make a stake from a stick is a much better idea.

19) Fire starter

A knife made of proper steel (higher carbon steels work better) will spark when struck with a flint or ferro striker. Especially in the case of well known brands, any companies offer sheaths or pouches with a loop for ferro rods and you should always take one you with you just in case.

20) Cauterize (seal) Wounds

Cauterization is an absolute last resort. If you are losing a lot of blood, at risk of bleeding out, and methods like tourniquets or heavy dressing are unavailable or impractical, then (AND ONLY THEN) cauterization is an option.

If possible, take a painkiller first, even if it’s just a natural root or herb which helps a bit, it’s better than nothing. If not, you might want to grab a stick to bite down on.

Next, prepare the knife. If the metal of the blade is the same as that of the handle then you need to wrap it in some kind of insulation, like leaves or bandages. Then sterilize the blade with alcohol before heating it. Then heat the metal of the blade until it is hot, but not so hot that it glows red or white.

Finally, place the metal over the wound. Leaving it there too log will burn healthy tissue, so cauterize in one or two second bursts until the wound is sealed. It is going to hurt, even with strong painkillers, so be ready.

22) Removing Splinters

A pointed knife can remove splinters well. Point the blade edge in the same direction as the splinter went in to your body. Lay the flat of the knife (as close to the tip as possible) at the bottom of the splinter (the end in your body) then ‘scape’ towards the other end. This should squeeze the splinter out.

23) Shaving

If your knife is sharp enough, you can shave with it. You will almost certainly need to re-sharpen your knife each time, as a standard razor is ground to less than 15°, whereas most knives are around/above 20°. Keep the blade absolutely perpendicular to your face and don’t press too hard and you should be fine.

24) Making Toothpicks

A piece of wood split down small enough (or just thick shavings carved to a point) make excellent toothpicks.

25) Stripping Wire

It goes without saying that you should never try to to strip live wire with a metal knife (or any tool, but especially a conductive one).

That said, it can be done safely: hold one end of the wire, with the wire resting on a flat surface like a worktop. Score a groove all the way through the wire jacket at the end near your hand (you will have more control at this end), you should be able to see the copper of the wire itself. Now hold both ends of the wire and pull, a small section of the jacket of the jacket should come off at the end you scored.

If you need to strip more of the wire then follow the above until the scoring, then   hold the knife in the groove you scored and pull the end nearer the score away from the knife. This will be harder but it should take of a lot in one go.

26) Signaling

A well polished knife is essentially a mirror, so can be used just like a heliograph. Point the flat side of the knife towards the sun and then tilt it towards the intended recipient. You don’t necessarily need to learn Morse code (it’s a good idea anyway though!) so as long as you know some basic phrases by rote:

  • I require assistance …–
  • I require medical assistance .– –
  • No/negative –.
  • Yes/affirmative -.-.

You can also use a knife to carve blazes on trees.If you’re going to do this then learn the system first, as it differs from region to region. Mostly a combination of arrows and larger/smaller symbols to indicate direction is common.


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2 Comments

  1. “There are really only two options : a karambit … or a Fairbairn-Sykes” Umm, actually, these are both highly specialized fighting knives. The karambit is really good at slashing, and the Fairbairn-Sykes is really good at stabbing. By having one of these, you tell your opponent he does not have to worry about other techniques. In trained hands, these can be effective, but they are by no means the “best” choice and certainly not the “only” choice.

    Throwing your knife in combat is a really bad idea. Once you throw your knife, you don’t have it any more. Worse, someone can get to it quicker than you can. And the odds that it will disable your opponent is quite small. You have to hit a specific, small target with enough force to penetrate. You have to know the exact distance between you and the target so that when it arrives, the point is actually pointed at the target. If your range is off, it will bounce off. If you get the range right, but you miss the target, it won’t do him enough damage and you’ll probably just make him madder. Plus, if he is not already armed, you gave him the means to express his displeasure with you.

    If you have a ferro rod, you can use any knife to scrape off a pile of material, and then use the knife to get a stream of sparks from the rod. If you have a sharp shard of flint, you can get sparks by “chipping” them off of a carbon steel knife blade. Stainless Steel blades don’t offer this ability.

  2. OK, so I have read this post several times trying to make sense of it. The way it reads you would need to carrry an excessive amount of knives…meaning an excessive amount of weight. Neither f these are good options.

    On to specifics….
    1. If you are not trrained, practiced and skilled in fighting with a knife, its nt a good idea. In a pinch you knife can save your life, but please dont preach about karambit knives and knfe fighting. The big take away about knofe fighting is this: It is NOT like in the movies. Everyone gets cut. Unless you’re ready and prepared to handle a signficant wound on yourself, then reconsider fighting with your knife.

    2. A Bowie, Kurki, or machete is a great ideaa….if you think you are going to be so brutally unprepared that you will fail to have an axe or hatchet with you. Yes, it will do nothing for cuttting brush, but why add the weight, distraction, and make the noise of cutting brush if you don’t have to.

    3. Using a knife for anything other than its intended purpose is a poor idea and constitutes an extreme failure to be prepared. Breaking your tip, bending your blade, or rounding out your edge is just a poor decision in any situation. This means you’ll end up spending time doing a task that doesn’t need time wasted on it.

    My suggestion is to be smart when trying to be prepared for the unexpected. A good quality, sharp folding knife, a good quality sharp full tang fixed blade knife, and a multi-tool will handle most things that you may encounter. A sharp knife is a safe knife. If you are giong to carry it, know how to dress your edge and how to fully sharpen it when needed. If you want to learn knfe fighting, then get trained and practice. Much like rrope/knot work, building fires using alternative means, and hunting and trapping, these are perishable skills. If you feel you need a bigger knife, then I’m sure you have your reasons, but use caution. Big knives add weight to everything you do, and add a new set of dangers and cautions along the way.

    I think this article was all encompassing and touched on a lot of material, but as for formatting it as uses for your knife it seemed to be a little too far “in the weeds” for most.

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