Eight survival knife skills you might need in an emergency

Blades aren’t just for cutting.
A knife shaving bamboo shoots.
If your knife has a straight square spine with a crisp edge, you can use that side of the blade for several scraping tasks. Tim MacWelch
a small knife on a log in the forest
Knives are invaluable tools in the outdoors, so it’s important you know all the ways to use them. Markus Spiske/Unsplash

This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

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

1. Scrape with the spine

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

Not everyone likes a square knife spine with precise edges. For one thing, they tend to chew up batons. And many of us would rather have a saw back or a false edge on our knife spines. But if you do happen to have a crisp square spine, you can use it for some important scraping jobs.

The primary use in the survival realm is scraping ferrocerium rods. Rather than dulling your knife edge by scraping this fire-making 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 do happen to lose your desired “square-ness,” 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) down the spine edges with intense pressure. This will burnish the spine and create slight burs on the edges. After that treatment, the spine should scrape better than ever.

2. Use a hardwood baton like a hatchet

A knife carving out a slice of wood.
A good knife can cut through wood. Tim MacWelch

You won’t want to try this trick with a folding knife or a fixed-blade knife with a wimpy tang, but more robust blades can take a beating (and can split wood). By using a hardwood stick and hammering on the spine of your knife, you can baton your way through firewood and even do some rough wood carving. I often use the baton technique to “rough in” survival stick-bows and taper down wooden throwing sticks. Save your wood chips from these woodworking endeavors, as they make great kindling to go with your newly split firewood.

3. Drill a neat hole

A Helle Bleja knife on a rock.
With careful twisting, you can use your knife tip to drill holes in a variety of surfaces and objects. Tim MacWelch

Why do we need to drill holes in things? A creative survivor can come up with all kinds 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 sweet syrup production. Use a sharp knife tip to drill tiny holes in bone chunks for needles and fishhooks. Just twist your blade back and forth, and you’ll drill through softer materials in no time.

4. Create a spear

A knife sitting in a pile of leaves.
Strap a knife to the end of a sturdy stick and you’ve got a basic spear. Tim MacWelch

We’ve all seen our favorite action heroes binding their survival knife to a wooden pole to create an improvised spear, and some knives are designed with this use in mind. Certain knives with skeleton handles and removable handle scales are actually designed to sit tightly against a pole or staff. When lashed securely in place, they give us one of humanity’s oldest tools—the spear. Used for both hunting and defense, the spear may seem like a primitive weapon (and you’re not wrong), but it’s better than having a weapon with no reach (or no weapon at all).

5. Flash a distress signal

A knife with a shiny blade.
A shiny blade can serve as a simple signal mirror. Tim MacWelch

Blades with a polished and reflective finish can signal your location to buddies or rescue workers in the backwoods. Shiny knives can act as a very basic signal mirror, capable of reflecting sunlight to signal distress. As with any mirror that lacks a sighting element, you’ll have a hard time aiming the light. But you can hold the knife in a way that the light bounces off the blade. You can move your whole body (and the knife) to aim the beam of light. Sweep it up and down, as well as side to side, very slowly across your fingertip, and put your finger just below your distant target. With any luck, they’ll notice the flash.

6. Dig into soft ground

A trio of knives on a rock.
If the soil isn’t too hard or rocky, you can get away with a little digging before you ruin your knife’s edge. Tim MacWelch

If you’re looking for a way to destroy your knife edge in a hurry, try driving it into the ground. Soil, sand, and rocks will file down your edge in a hurry, leaving it duller than an old butter knife. But if you need to dig, larger knives can serve as a trowel in an emergency. From excavating little latrines (cat holes) to digging up edible roots and tubers, your knife can help you work in the soil. Just make sure you have the skills and supplies to sharpen your knife after this brutal form of abuse.

7. Hammer with the handle

A knife with a hard-shelled sheathe.
The handle of a knife can be used as a blunt object for striking. Tim MacWelch

From driving stakes in the ground to breaking a car window in an emergency, the beefy handle of a survival knife can act as a makeshift hammer. Depending on the make and model, your knife may have a pommel that comes to a point for precise impact (like smashing glass or skulls). It may also have a flattened pommel with a textured grip, for hammering stakes, breaking open shellfish or cracking nuts. Just keep safety in mind as you wield your survival knife in this manner. If it’s a fixed blade knife, keep it in the sheath while you hammer (to prevent accidental stabs and cuts).

8. Turn your knife into a projectile

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

Sure, we’ve seen plenty of knife throwing as a balloon-popping sideshow act or in action movies, but knife throwing can have a legitimate place in survival (especially if you practice it often). Yes, you might just be “throwing your knife away” but you might also skewer a small animal or defend yourself at a distance. The most common throwing method is the overhand technique. Hold the knife by the blade, with the knife’s spine against your hand. Hold the knife handle up by your ear and take aim at your target. Bring your arm down (like swinging a hammer) and release the knife. Timing and distance are the main variables and you’ll have to spend a lot of time figuring it out. Try throwing at different distances (5 yards, 8 yards, 10 yards, etc.) and practice flicking the knife harder or softer, until you can stick your knife on a predictable basis.