Why Carry A Knife?

A knifeless man is a lifeless man

Old Nordic proverb

So why carry a knife?

I would argue there are three primary reasons for carrying a knife at all times:

  1. The simple need of a tool to separate matter; whether it be for one’s livelihood (agriculture, construction, etc.) or in the course of everyday living from food preparation, camping, fishing, hunting, to opening a package
  2. The unexpected (wilderness) emergency
  3. Self-defense

I will skip the first reason of a simple everyday tool in this article for obvious reasons. However, taking the opportunity here to say it’s a shame that in many countries you now need to have a specific reason to carry a knife or you are in violation of that country’s law. In my youth we always had at least a pocket knife, even in school.

The Unexpected (Wilderness) Emergency

Even with the very valid and comprehendable scenarios of ‘rescue-from-entanglement’ and ‘‘self-defense,’ in today’s society when someone says they carry a knife “just in case of an emergency,” it unfortunately comes across as an excuse. I would argue that is because the majority of people in today’s society simply have no experience of real discomfort for an extended period of time with their instant relief from pain, hunger, thirst, and cold or heat in our ‘modern world.’ And it’s usually those same people who also lack the knowledge of how a knife could be used when that modern world becomes disrupted. Therefore, I am going to set the stage here for this article focusing on an Unexpected Wilderness Emergency, i.e., survival.

So What is Survival?

Survival – when exposed to any potentially lethal stresses encountered in the wilderness, death is very likely if these stresses are not alleviated or eliminated soon enough. (Credit M. Kochanski for definition)

While I could write a book (and others have) on the more common stressors associated to (wilderness) survival and how to address (survival knowledge), for the sake of brevity let’s use context coming from primitive living skills. Primitive skills are the ultimate fallback of which a very knowledgeable person could survive with just a cutting tool for their general needs; and the least common denominators to sustain life can be found in the three primary tools for which we know life today; fire, cordage, and the cutting tool itself. With these three tools, everything else can be built and why civilization exists.

It’s also worth noting that we still use these three tools everyday. The fire we know now comes through a copper wire or under the hood of our vehicle; adhesives, nails and machine-made textiles hold our world together; and finally, machines and others separate materials for us. So let’s discuss each of these tools briefly and their relationship to the knife should anything become disrupted in an emergency.

Fire, a sacred element that does so much; it is light, keeps us warm, cleans/sterilizes, cooks our food, aids in tool making, modifies the landscape, and much more. In terms of learning wilderness survival, fire is only secondary in importance to knowing how to properly dress when it comes to again, learning, wilderness living skills. Should you not be dressed properly for the environment in an emergency, or your clothing (shelter) becomes compromised, fire is the most effective way to make up for those deficiencies in the cold. And in most environments, a knife (or other cutting tool) would be an invaluable tool in processing wood, especially in wet weather when fire is needed most. Depending on resources, a cutting tool may also aid (or be outright needed) in shelter construction. Because of the importance of fire, after knowing how to dress and firecraft, knifecraft is the third most important skill to learn in wilderness living & survival. Please note we are talking skills to learn, not what may be a priority in a survival situation as that could be a constantly changing variable.

Cordage — as hinted to earlier, before the nail and adhesives were invented, man’s world was held together by cordage.  Clothing, shelter construction, fire making, traps/deadfalls, containers and more.  A cutting tool is invaluable to cordage’s use and in some cases creation.

Cutting Tools – the knife itself — humans were not born with fang or claw, yet we need to separate matter everyday; if not done by us directly with a cutting tool, it has been done for us in our modern and ‘safe society.’  I do not want to have to rely on someone else to cut something for me; and if there is an emergency, who would do it anyway?  I would rather have that cutting tool on my person at all times ‘just in case.’ When things do go bad, it is almost always unexpected and you will be left to fend for yourself with what you have on your person.

While I used wilderness survival as my reason to carry a knife, some may say it is not needed in today’s world of which I would argue two points: (1) modern conveniences can become unavailable at any time and it is foolish to think otherwise.  Truly, the Earth is one big wilderness overlaid with conveniences that in the blink of an eye could disappear in ANY part of the world. And (2), a knife may be used as a weapon to defend oneself…


People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

George Orwell

We are truly blessed as a nation for the men and women in law enforcement and our military. Unfortunately, 911 is not always timely or in some cases even an option. 

Self-preservation is built into our DNA and the right to defend one’s self is GOD given (period). The U.S. Constitution is there to protect this right in the USA. While self-defense is not the primary intent of the knife I carry everyday as it is small and utilitarian in design, it will still effectively separate someone else’s or an animal’s matter if needed in that capacity.

And similarly that the Earth is one big wilderness overlaid with conveniences that can disappear in an instant; so can the civility to which those conveniences are associated of which lawlessness and chaos are always on the precipice from an individual or even a group.

While a gun, baton or other designated weapon would be a much better self-defense tool than a knife, when bad things happen you will most likely be left to confront them with what’s on your person at that moment in time. Hopefully you have a gun if it’s self-defense.  And if you don’t, or you run out of bullets, I hope you at least have a knife.

Author’s current edc

Photo above Steve Watts’ jack knives. Homage to him and his jack knife cookery!

Additional reading you may like…

About Christian Noble

Chris Noble is the founder of MasterWoodsman.com and Woodsmoke Camping Company. A Master Naturalist, he holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and has worked as a Registered Forester and Certified Burn Manager in several states. Chris is also a Wilderness First Responder and since the late 90’s has been “practicing primitive” skills and taking lessons from numerous Master Woodsmen throughout North America. An advocate for Conservation, teacher of Wilderness Living Skills, and happily married, he enjoys passing what he has learned thus far to others, especially his 2 children, Emerson and Duncan.

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