Outdoor Life Online Editor

If I could take only one piece of modern equipment with me into a survival situation, it would be a knife. With a good knife, I can make just about everything else I need-shelter, tools for digging a fireplace, primitive traps and twine.

Because of its multiple uses, a survival knife is larger and heavier than a hunting knife. But what makes a knife suitable for the rigors of a life-and-death situation? The answer could fill a book, but I can at least take a stab at the subject (pun intended). The characteristics covered here are not in order of priority-they’re all important.

Check Out the Metal
The blade of a survival knife should be made of tough, edge-holding, corrosion-resistant metal. Knife metallurgy is a constantly evolving science. If you want to read a thorough discussion of steel types, go to www.bladeforums. com and click on FAQs. Then click on Knowledge Base and after that Knife FAQs to find Steel Types. In general, a stainless-steel (440A, 440B or 440C alloy) or carbon-steel (1095 alloy) blade will be a good choice. But stainless steel is stronger.

Study the Shape
The knife should have a full-length tang (backbone) that runs all the way to a functional pommel (butt end), which can serve as a hammer. (There are a number of folding survival-type knives, but in my book, a survival knife is a fixed-blade knife.) The blade should have a sharp point and good slicing ability. Strive for some balance between the amount of the blade that is serrated and the portion that has a plain edge (you’ll need both), but it’s key to have a blade with a significant section of serration for sawing. The back of the blade should have a thick, stout spine that can be hammered without denting or bending to assist in chores like splitting firewood into kindling or hacking your way through a tree limb.

You want this knife to be sharp. A dull knife makes tasks more difficult and increases your chances of slipping and cutting yourself. Keeping the blade sharp is your responsibility. Most knives come with sharpening stones.

But remember: A properly sharpened survival knife with a strong spine and blade can easily slice off fingers and dice halfway through limbs. The respect you have for your firearms should transfer to your survival knife.

Get a Good Grip
Under survival conditions, you’ll sometimes be wet and muddy. So your knife needs a grip that isn’t slippery when wet. Knife manufacturers use every trick in the book to accomplish this, from shaping the grip with contours to fit your fingers to using aggressive cross-checking or employing “grippy” materials. Find a knife that feels comfortable in your hand, and do a wet test if possible. The grip should be durable enough to take a pounding without falling apart in your hands. A pretty grip that shatters the first time you use the knife as an axe isn’t worth much. Rubber grips, wooden grips or grips made of very strong, checkered composite material all can serve you well, but hands-on evaluation is necessary.

Don’t Super-Size It
Crocodile Dundee’s knife was wholly oversized, but that’s Hollywood. Your knife should be big enough and heavy enough to serve as an axe, a pry bar and sometimes as a digging tool. Ideally, you’ll use your blade to manufacture a good digging stick out of wood, so don’t abuse your knife by sticking it in the ground. Because you never know what’s going to come up in a survival situation, the knife shouldn’t be a wimp. The vaunted Ka-Bar survival/combat knife, of Marine Corps fame, has a blade that is the optimal size. A little bigger, or a little smaller, can work as well. You’re not looking to paddle a boat with the thing, but just as very large knives can be unwieldy, too small a knife won’t have the necessary leverage for tough tasks.

Protect Yourself
You’ll need a protective sheath that features ssome type of mechanism to prevent the knife from falling out easily. When I say a protective sheath, I mean one that will protect you from injury as well as protect the knife. I once owned a knife that came with a thin leather sheath. After hard use, the blade eventually pushed through the leather and poked me in the leg. The knives I now own have hard sheaths that feature a sharpening stone. One even has a pouch for a disposable lighter. Kydex sheaths are particularly durable. Heavy leather sheaths work, too, but can wear out over time.

No matter how great a knife you have, don’t assume you’re an instant expert just because you’ve been smart about picking it. Practice proper knife safety and learn as you go. Always cut away from yourself and your hands. Your knife is a tool, not a weapon per se. And forget about entertaining the hunting party with slow-mo Rambo fighting moves around the campfire-you really don’t want to find out how good your buddies are at first aid.