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Think knife-only survival happens only in the movies or on TV? Think again. If you spend time in the outdoors, you just might find yourself in a knife-only survival scenario. But you can prepare yourself to prevail even when you’re on the edge of survival.

I recently tested myself in a three-day knife-only survival challenge. I found it an incredibly good and enlightening experience with how tough it truly can be, even for the best of us.

Knife-Only Survival Scenarios

We’ve all heard blowhards bragging about how they could head out into the woods with only a knife and survive. But more plausible knife-only survival scenarios would involve some mishaps. Some of these situations have occurred and been documented.

For example, say you are out backpacking, and you set up camp. Suddenly, a mama bear with cubs comes charging into your camp. Fleeing for your life, you manage to take with you only what you are wearing. Even if you manage to return to the campsite again without being disoriented, you’d likely find that the she-predator has eaten your food and thrashed your gear beyond repair. In this case, you’d be lucky (and smart) to be wearing your survival knife.

Or say you’re on a high-adventure canoe trip. Suddenly, you find yourself in over your head amidst Class 5 rapids. You get dumped, and your canoe gets smashed upon the rocks. The currents sweep your gear miles away downstream. If you survive drowning, again, you have only what you’re wearing to survive.

These kinds of scenarios have happened to others. When they do, the only thing that you have to survive with is what you are wearing. Hopefully, you’re wearing a knife.

My Top 5 Knife-Only Survival Knives

I always get the question, “What’s the best survival knife?” My reply is always, “The one you have!”

In a knife-only survival situation, you are going to push your knife and ask it to do a lot. So you want your tool to be tough, reliable, and durable. When it comes to knife-only survival, here are my top five:

  1. TOPS Knives SXB
  2. Work Tuff Gear’s Nomad Bowie
  3. Dark Timber Knives Punisher Bowie
  4. Matt Graham’s Earth Skills Knife by TOPS Knives
  5. Primal Gear Unlimited’s To Hell And Back Knife

Granted, some of these are beasts of knives, but sometimes to survive you must become a beast.

Knife-Only Survival Smarts

Your first knife-only survival step happens before you ever leave the house. You’ve left your good plan and your route with someone back home. When you don’t check back in, they’ll come looking. Once authorities enter the picture, they’ll normally do search and rescue for three to five days. Sometimes they’ll go longer, especially when they find signs of life.

Here are your next steps:

  • Assess the situation. Do a medical assessment of yourself. Do a pocket check for what you have on you to survive with.
  • Make a plan. In most cases, you would stay at your last-known location. Or find the highest and most open spot you can nearby. Get some kind of distress signals out in threes—the international sign of distress. Next, wait—as long as you have critical resources to survive on, especially fresh drinking water.

Self-Rescue Smarts

If you don’t have your gear and your resources are limited, you may decide to self-rescue after a day or so. If you find yourself in this situation, you will have appreciated keeping your skills as sharp as your survival knife. You will be thankful you kept that knife strapped to your side.

Once you decide to go and have determined your direction of travel, use your knife to cut down some straight branches. Leave signals by placing marker arrows that point in your direction of travel.

As you move, every so often take your knife and hack three marks into a tree at eye level. Trackers will see these and know they’re on your trail.

As you are moving, always keep an eye out for helpful resources. You can salvage things like the following for your survival kit:

  • Dry grasses for a future fire tinder bundle
  • Any identifiable wild edibles
  • Water
  • Useful trash

When you decide to set up camp for rest or overnight, look for natural shelters like rock overhangs, root balls, or caves that won’t require a lot of energy expenditure to create. If you have to build, use deadfall and debris to build hasty shelters, like a fallen tree lean-to or a debris hut. Use your knife to gather fresh green branches to waterproof the roof and make bedding to keep warm.

If you have primitive fire skills, your knife will come in handy to make a bow drill kit. Use a bootlace for
the cordage.

A knife can also hack an old log into a rain catch trough that secures drinking water when it rains.

If you have the time, a knife and three sticks are all you need to make an effective figure-4 deadfall trap or to carve a spear to hunt with or give you protection.

As you move, your knife will become your survival partner. It will be the one item that helps you get out alive, along with your own wit, skills, and grit!