The One Essential: Knife or Lighter?

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed survival students ask me all the time what kind of survival knife I recommend for them. Their grin sags a bit when I remark that it doesn't much matter, as long as the steel is strong and it can hold an edge.

I can see that the germ of their query was the notion that they could survive anywhere in the world as long as they had the proper knife. But as my years as a survival instructor have gone by, I've come to accept the idea that a lighter is the most important piece of gear in a survival situation.

Two decades ago, I had a serious love affair with my knives, as most aspiring survival experts do. I still have and use a BuckLite folder I acquired in my teenage years, and it has held up like a trooper. I have practiced friction fire starting for years, carving my own wooden fire kits from a great number of tree species. Just give me a sharp knife, and I can make a fire kit and the resultant fire very quickly.

This might leave you thinking that I value knives above any other survival gear, since I can create fire without any modern fire-starting devices. But here is the revelation that changed my mind. What if I have hypothermia or I'm injured? Can I still make that friction fire in the cold, wet rain, with my life depending on it? Can I make that fire with broken bones or other injuries that sometimes are the very reason for a survival emergency?

Probably not; at least I shouldn't expect to. However, despite hypothermia, broken limbs and a pile of other problems, I can almost always make fire with just one working thumb and a lighter. That fire can keep me warm, signal for help, boil water and much more. Now, in an ideal situation, you'll have the knife…and at least two ways to make fire…and first aid gear…and some form of shelter. But if you have only one survival gear item, you'll be best off it it's a lighter.