Eight survival knife skills you might need in an emergency

a small knife on a log in the forest
Knives are invaluable tools in the outdoors, so it’s important that you know all the ways to use them. Markus Spiske/Unsplash

This story was originally featured on Outdoor living.

Anyone who spends time in the woods owns a survival or everyday knife (if you don’t, you should). But chances are you’re not using the blade on your hip to its full potential. Knives can do more than cut, and when you’re in an emergency, there are several ways to use a blade that can save your life.

1. Scratch with the spine

Bamboo wood after being scraped with a knife.
If your knife has a straight square spine with a sharp edge, you can use that side of the blade for multiple scraping tasks. Tim McWelch

Not everyone likes the back of a square knife with sharp edges. For one thing, they tend to chew batons. And many of us would rather have a saw back or a false edge on the back of our knives. But if you have a clean square back, you can use it for some heavy scraping work.

The main use in the field of survival is to scrape ferrocerium rods. Rather than dull the edge of your knife by scraping this flame retardant metal alloy, you can scrape with a square spine and produce a shower of incendiary sparks. And if the spine is really good, you can even use it as a wood scraper for projects like bow making and tool production. If you happen to lose your desired squareness, use a file to touch up the top of the spine. Finish the job by stroking a hard, smooth metal object (like the side of a screwdriver) along the edges of the spine with intense pressure. This will brown the spine and create slight burrs around the edges. After this treatment, the spine should scratch better than ever.

2. Use a hardwood stick like a hatchet

A knife cutting a slice of wood.
A good knife can cut wood. Tim McWelch

You won’t want to try this trick with a folding knife or a fixed-blade knife with a wimpy tang, but sturdier blades can take a beating (and can split wood). By using a hardwood stick and hammering the back of your knife, you can carve your way through firewood and even carve rough wood. I often use the baton technique to “brush” survival arcs and taper wooden throwing sticks. Save your wood chips from these woodworking efforts, as they make great kindling to accompany your newly split firewood.

3. Drill a clean hole

A Helle Bleja knife on a rock.
With a careful twist, you can use the tip of your knife to punch holes in a variety of surfaces and objects. Tim McWelch

Why do we need to punch holes in things? A creative survivor can come up with all sorts of tasks that drilling can serve well. Drill a hole in a maple trunk in February or March to collect the sap for drinking water and the production of sweet syrup. Use the tip of a sharp knife to poke tiny holes in pieces of bone for needles and hooks. Simply twist your blade back and forth and you’ll be drilling through softer materials in no time.

4. Create a spear

A knife sitting in a pile of leaves.
Attach a knife to the end of a sturdy stick and you have a basic spear. Tim McWelch

We’ve all seen our favorite action heroes link their survival knife to a wooden pole to create an improvised spear, and some knives are designed for just that use. Some knives with skeleton handles and removable handle scales are actually designed to sit firmly against a pole or stick. When tied securely in place, they give us one of mankind’s oldest tools: the spear. Used for both hunting and defense, the spear may seem like a primitive weapon (and you’re not mistaken), but it’s better than having a weapon with no scope (or no weapon at all).

5. Send out a distress signal

A knife with a shiny blade.
A shiny blade can serve as a simple signaling mirror. Tim McWelch

Blades with a polished, reflective finish can signal your location to friends or rescuers in the woods. Shiny knives can act as a very basic signaling mirror, able to reflect sunlight to signal distress. As with any mirror without an aiming element, you will have difficulty directing the light. But you can hold the knife in such a way that the light bounces off the blade. You can move your whole body (and the knife) to aim the beam of light. Swipe it up and down, as well as side to side, very slowly on the tip of your finger and place your finger just below your distant target. Hopefully they will notice the flash.

6. Dig in loose soil

A trio of knives on a rock.
If the ground isn’t too hard or rocky, you can dig in a bit before your knife’s edge is damaged. Tim McWelch

If you’re looking for a way to quickly destroy your knife’s edge, try shoving it into the ground. Dirt, sand and rocks will quickly deposit your edge, leaving it duller than an old butter knife. But if you have to dig, bigger knives can serve as an emergency trowel. Whether it’s digging small latrines (cat holes) or digging up edible roots and tubers, your knife can help you work in the ground. Just make sure you have the skills and supplies to sharpen your knife after this brutal form of abuse.

7. Hammer with handle

A knife with a hard shell sheath.
The handle of a knife can be used as a blunt object to strike. Tim McWelch

Whether driving stakes into the ground or breaking car glass in an emergency, the sturdy handle of a survival knife can double as a makeshift hammer. Depending on the brand and model, your knife may have a pommel that comes to a point for precise impact (like breaking glass or skulls). It may also have a flattened pommel with a textured grip, for hammering stakes, cracking seashells or cracking nuts. Just keep safety in mind when wielding your survival knife in this manner. If it’s a fixed-blade knife, keep it in the sheath while you hammer (to avoid accidental stabs and cuts).

8. Turn your knife into a projectile

A knife thrown into the trunk of a tree.
In some situations, the right knife can become a projectile weapon. Tim McWelch

Sure, we’ve seen plenty of knife throwing as a show number or in action movies, but knife throwing can have a legitimate place in survival (especially if you practice it often). Yes, you could just “throw your knife”, but you could also skewer a small animal or defend yourself from a distance. The most common throwing method is the overhand technique. Hold the knife by the blade, with the back of the knife against your hand. Hold the handle of the knife close to your ear and aim at your target. Lower your arm (like swinging a hammer) and release the knife. Timing and distance are the main variables and you will need to spend a lot of time figuring them out. Try throwing at different distances (5 yards, 8 yards, 10 yards, etc.) and practice flicking the knife harder or softer, until you can thrust your knife in predictably.


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