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Back to Basics: The Survival Knife

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Back to Basics: The Survival Knife

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One thing I have learned over the past few years is that that knives are a highly personal thing and that what suits one person, may not be appropriate for another.  Not only that but there are so many types of knives that it would take a lifetime to collect them all.

Think about it.  There are knives that are weapons, knives that are tools, knives that are utensils, and even knives that are religious implements.  There are everyday carry knives and knives used for sport.   And then there are survival knives.

Wikipedia has a good description of the survival knife:

Ontario ASEK (8)“Survival knives are knives intended for survival purposes in a wilderness environment, often in an emergency situation when the user has lost most of his/her main equipment. Military units issue some type of survival knife to pilots in the event their plane may be shot down. Survival knives can be used for trapping, skinning, wood cutting and other uses. Hunters, hikers, and outdoor sport enthusiasts use survival knives. Some survival knives are heavy-bladed and thick; others are lightweight or fold in order to save weight and bulk as part of a larger survival kit. Their functions often include serving as a hunting knife.

Of course these days, every prepper worth their salt will also consider the survival knife as a backup defensive weapon – something that can be used against man or beast in a life or death confrontation.

Attributes of a Basic Survival Knife

As far as I am concerned, a good survival knife should have some basic attributes, regardless of its price. Here are just a few, in no special order:

  • Portable and easily carried on one’s person.
  • Easy to use without the need for any complex process to put it in to action.
  • The blade should hold a sharp edge and it should be easy to sharpen without the need for cumbersome equipment.
  • Should be sturdy and tough so that the blade does not break or bend and the handle does not crack under duress

With this brief introduction, today I am sharing a some thoughts on a a particular type of survival knife, the Aircrew Survival Egress Knife or ASEK.  We recently purchased such a knife and it was put through its paces by my very own Survival Husband.

The Ontario ASEK Survival System

This knife system was recommended to me by a friend whom I have a great amount of respect for when it comes to knives, firearms and knowledge of the outdoors.  Given that, I went ahead and ordered the Ontario ASEK survival knife.  For those of you that are familiar with this type of knife, this particular model was chosen by the Army to be included in the “Air Warrior System”.

The knife has a 5 inch blade with a zinc phosphate finish to inhibit rust which also makes the blade non-reflective. It also has a one piece handle with spear holes.  These spear holes allow you to attach the knife to a pole – and thus build a make-shift spear.  The knife’s butt plate can be used as a hammer and the pointed tip on the butt cap can score and break glass or even Plexiglas.

The knife system also has a tool which contains an anodized aluminum strap cutter which is in a separate pocket of the scabbard.  This strap cutter is designed to cut through a seat belt and is something that emergency responders use daily.

The knife arrived extremely sharp right out of the package and the sheath and strap are nicely made.

Ontario ASEK (7)

The blade itself has a top and a bottom edge with the bottom edge being the knife edge.  The knife edge runs 2 1/2 inches from the tip and back where it ends in a small serrated edge.  The top of the blade has a heavy saw tooth.

I am very impressed with the construction and comfort while holding the knife. As far as keeping the knife with you, it can be carried on your person in a number of ways, including on your belt or in your pack.  It can also be strapped to your body but I did not attempt to try that myself.  I choose to carry it strapped to my calf and find it quite comfortable which is saying a lot given its size.

Ontario ASEK (6)

This knife is amazing.

I chopped through a two and half inch branch with out even trying in less than 10 seconds, and probably could have done this faster if I had wanted to try (and if Gaye was not looking over my shoulder telling me to be careful).  As I was using it along the trail, I kept thinking that this knife system would do anything I needed out in the wild to help sustain myself if I had to bug-out.  Not only that, given how easily it cut through wood, it would surely cut through bone although hopefully I will never need to use it for that purpose.

Ontario ASEK (2) Ontario ASEK (4)

For now, I plan to take this knife system with me in my car so that in an emergency, I can cut away my seatbelt or break the window glass with its butt plate.  Of course I will also take it along with me when I hit the trails for a hike.

In summary, I think my friend under estimated this knife system.  Sure he recommended it but he did not pass on its “wow” factor.  It surpassed every test I gave it and I would recommend this knife system unconditionally for anyone in need of a good survival knife.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts about the Ontario ASEK with you!

                   Shelly, the Survival Husband

The Final Word

There is no such thing as the perfect survival knife since individual needs and budgets may vary.  My own experience is somewhat limited but it makes sense that when you are just getting started, talk to friend, read some reviews, then pick a knife and go with it.  Use it for awhile and learn what it can do easily and without undue effort.  Once your have mastered your first knife, add a second knife to your collection that will add additional usefulness and functionality.

Some other good knives to consider are the following:

Kershaw Zero Tolerance G10 with Speed Safe
Ka Bar USMC Utility Knife
SOG Seal Team Knife
Cold Steel SRK

And of course, for the budget conscious, you just can not beat the very nice Kershaw OSO Sweet Knife.

Whatever you decide, be sure to become familiar with your knife and use it in a wide variety of situations now.  Become skilled and proficient while time is on your side.

Spotlight Items:  Ontario ASEK-Aircrew Survival Egress Knife (ASEK): This is not the least expensive survival knife out there but it is also not the most expensive. Given that it comes with sheath, the leg strap and the cutting tool, it is actually a pretty decent value.

Smith’s PP1 Pocket Pal Multifunction Sharpener: Don’t forget to get this portable knife sharpener to go with your survival knife. A top seller among Backdoor Survival readers.

Bargain Bin:  One of the best places to seek out survival gear is the outdoor and camping section of your local sporting goods or hardware store.  Here are some basics from Amazon to set you on your way to having the right gear available to do the job without spending a ton of money.  Don’t forget a Rothco Pack to carry it all.

Emergency Fire Starter:  Hugely popular with my readers, this inexpensive magnesium emergency fire starter will do the job.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter:  At only 2 ounces (in weight), the LifeStraw is suitable for a backpack or bug out bag.  It is easy to use and requires no chemicals to remove a  minimum of 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria.

Survival Kit Military Style Can Opener:  This is a no frills P-51 military surplus can opener.

Rothco 550lb. Type III Nylon Paracord:  Pick your poison, color-wise, just be aware that some colors are more expensive than others.  What to do with Paracord?  Read: 44 Really Cool Uses of Paracord for Survival.

SE 7-Inch Hunting Knife with Fire Starter:  Another inexpensive option for a highly rated knife. It has a full-tang stainless-steel tanto blade and  includes a green cord-wrapped handle a belt sheath with a Velcro securing strap, and a magnesium alloy fire starter.

Tinder-Quik Fire Tabs:  There are times when your DIY fire starting materials may not be available.  These fire tabs will fit the bill nicely.

Ka-Bar Black Kukri Machete:  This is on my bucket list (or shall I say the Survival Husband bucket list).  I am still doing some research but this looks like a best in class at the price point.  What is a machete used for?  Chopping brush, clearing a campsite, or cutting small branches come to mind. This Kukri measures 17 inches overall with an 11-1/2-inch blade and it comes with a black leather/Cordura combination sheath.

Chainmate Survival Pocket Chain Saw With Pouch:  This is a survival chain saw that includes a belt loop pouch. Here is what one of the reviewers said: “This thing EATS wood and weighs nothing!! It takes a little bit of effort but you can chew through a hardwood tree half a foot thick in literally a couple minutes; half that if you use two people (one on each end).”

Cyalume SnapLight Industrial Grade Chemical Light Sticks:  You know how I love my light sticks.  Keep them in drawers next to the bed, your kitchen junk drawer, your car, your backpack – everywhere.  Read:  Lighting Your Way With Chemical Lighting.


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17 Responses to “Back to Basics: The Survival Knife”

  1. i’d be careful of hidden tang knives, unless the surrounding grip material is something resilient and hard. for example, the mora is a hidden partial tang, but the grip is injection moulded around it and is tough enough that it takes a lot of beating with a 4 lb hammer (with the blade in a vice) to break it. i don’t like the mora though because the blade is paper thin. of course, if the tang on a full tang is tempered well enough and the scales are of a hard and yet durable material, it should work well too. the thinnest any knife should be is 5/32 with 3/16 being better. after all, it has to stand up to some abuse out in the field.

    not being dogmatic here, but i believe a survival knife should have a blade no less than 5 inches and no longer than 7 and around 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 inches wide. that will give you a good range of things you can do with it, from carving traps to chopping saplings for shelter poles. even then, it should be doubled up with a 3.5 or larger folding knife for fine work.

    an upper guard is worthless since it won’t let you choke up on the blade. a lower guard is essential to keep your hand from inadvertently sliding up onto the blade. i’m also a fan of carbon steel since it’s tougher than all but the higher end stainless steels that you find on the $200 and up knives. if you know how to oil the blade at least twice a week when using it often in the scrub, it will discolour but not rust. a hardness between 56-58 is a good balance between wear resistance (edge retention) and ease of sharpening. for grind, i’d say a sabre grind, modified scandi or better yet, a full blade convex is about the best you’re gonna get. full flat makes the blade too weak (since it’s relying on the spine for structural integrity) and removes needed mass for chopping, and both scandi and “hollow” grinds make the edge more prone to chipping.

    now after all of that, a person also needs to consider that they can’t haul around a knife like that all the time (in most places that is), so a person needs to carry the largest folding knife that is legal where they are; unless fixed blades are legal to carry. in that case, one would want to fall back on the knife i described earlier. as it is said time and time again, the best survival knife is the one you have with you when you need it. so someone should carry the best one they can afford and as i said, the largest one they can legally carry. i carry the cold steel large voyager, AND the pocket bushman, in a leather belt bag with a few other survival supplies.

    another thing is to put together a “lofty” style survival kit. you can find an 8 oz tin with a folding lid on ebay for $5 and free shipping from buddyburnermaker. that’s the size of the 2 oz tobacco tin john wiseman suggests to use. then if you look up the bcb combat survival kit and copy it, and add an xl unlubricated condom for carrying water and pack the extra space with balls of cotton wool to keep things from rattling, you’ll be set. electrical tape is perfect for sealing the lid from water and a couple of ranger bands offer greater insurance. cheerio love! be safe out there.

  2. I never thought of a survival knife as a multipurpose, but you make a good case is it can be a tool, utensil, weapon etc. Also, as you mentioned, no knife is going to be perfect knife, but it is certainly better to be with one than without!

  3. I really like articles that go straight to the point. There are a huge variety of knives out there and they are really affordable. High quality is always a a MUST and I think that US knives are the best. The thing that will come on second place to me are the survival multi tool. Maybe you can do a small article based on your experience. Thanks

  4. I think it is about cost-effectiveness: I have X dollars to spend, do I want to spend $50 for something that does what it is intended to do and the rest on emergency shelter / MREs / rain gear – whatever, or do I want to spend the whole amount on an exquisite knife? Once you’ve got the basics – food, water, shelter, light…….- covered and want to splurge, so be it, but don’t short yourself in other areas just to get that Puma / Randall / pick your favorite maker.

    Remember, too that “cheap” does not equate to “inexpensive”. It’s all in the steel and how it is treated, not in the fineness of the finish, the handle material or the maker’s name.


  5. Get a Russian or other Eastern European block AK47 bayonet and scabord for less than $50. Beats the heck out of the high priced “safe queens” and don’t worry about getting scratches, mars and nicks. That comes standard upon receipt!

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